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M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most fascinating modern figures in the film industry – a critical darling of the late ’90s and early noughties after writing and directing The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan suffered a staggering fall from grace, amassing a string of critically panned movies such as Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender etc.
His latest offering, Split, has received mostly favorable reviews and is holding quite steady at the box office. Between that and its big, final twist (a staple of Shyamalan movies), which has been getting a lot of attention, this has all the making of a comeback for the director.
The following article assumes the reader has seen Split or is already familiar with the twist ending. Spoilers were avoided in my review of the movie, but this will be a spoiler-heavy closer look of the twist itself – you have been warned.
At the end of Split, The Beast, the dormant 24th personality of James McAvoy’s Kevin, is unleashed and out in the open. Wanted by the police and dubbed ‘The Horde’ by the media, the final scene of the movie reveals that Split takes place in the same universe as Shyamalan’s cult classic Unbreakable. Bruce Willis reprises his role as David Dunn for a cameo that firmly establishes the connection, contextualizing the character of Kevin as a supervillain similar to Mr. Glass, as played by Samuel L. Jackson.
Shyamalan has stated that the character of Kevin was always a part of the world of Unbreakable and that he was even present in one of earlier drafts of that movie’s script. He’s made it no secret that he hopes to make a sequel that combines the two stories, presumably having Willis face off against McAvoy. All of this sounds great, doesn’t it? A return to form for a director that was going through a pretty long rough patch, with a callback to his earlier, well-received work and the promise of further exploring that world and its characters. So what’s the problem?
As I pointed out in my review, while the twist itself is incredibly interesting and opens up a lot of possibilities, it simply doesn’t work as a satisfying ending to Split. It makes sense within the movie’s established rules but has no bearing on the events of the story or the characters involved with it. It provides the movie with a larger context for the world it’s set in but doesn’t inform our understanding of what happens in the plot in any meaningful way.
None of Kevin’s personalities show any indication that they know who David Dunn is or that they have ever interacted with him and the same holds true for the rest of the characters as well. The reveal is a reveal to the audience alone, as the scene takes place in a diner with none of the main characters present. Even the way the reveal is handled is awkward and clunky, as a patron randomly comments that ‘The Horde’ is kind-of-like-that-wheelchair-guy-from-all-those-years-ago, just so that Bruce Willis can say his name was ‘Mr. Glass’, the dramatic equivalent of holding up a sign that says “cue audible gasps”.
Mr. Glass was a shrewd villain who suffered from a rare condition that made his bones really fragile and he masterminded several large-scale disasters in Philadelphia in the hopes of finding someone like David Dunn. How is that in any way like a serial killer suffering from dissociative identity disorder? It’s an incredibly contrived way to setup the line from Willis, who, fortunately, has a tag with his name on it in case you still haven’t figured out what the twist is.
Conceptually, it’s a brilliant idea, but the execution is flawed. It’s basically a somewhat stilted after credits scene that has no place at the end the story because it has next to nothing to do with it. While Shyamalan fans will certainly be excited by the reveal, anyone unfamiliar with Unbreakable (which came out seventeen years ago) will probably just be confused or disinterested in the ending.
The prospect of a Split/Unbreakable crossover is exciting, as it would involve the best part of Split – Kevin’s character – in a continuation of the story from what is arguably Shyamalan’s best movie to date. Nevertheless, our excitement for the implications of the twist should not distract us from the fact that the way it was handled was somewhat poor.
After all, holding M. Night Shyamalan to a higher standard is pretty important – his career has made it abundantly clear he’s capable of great heights as well as some pretty spectacular lows.