The first decade of the twenty-first century saw director M. Night Shyamalan burst onto the scene with back-to-back hits. Unfortunately for his fans, the auteur’s curse would strike Shyamalan at almost the same time it struck George Lucas.
Then he remembered a character cut from 2000’s flawed but brilliant gem Unbreakable.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The plot of Shyamalan’s 2016 picture Split is deceptively complex and would falsely come off as “The Silence of the Lambs as told by Buffalo Bill’s victims,” so this review will focus on Shyamalan’s greatest strength: his characters.
Kevin Crumb is a Philadelphia man suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder. For years, he has worked with maverick psychologist Karen Fletcher to integrate his 23 personalities, or alters. Kevin’s original identity fragmented due to physical abuse inflicted from a young age by his mother.
Brief references are made to Kevin getting into trouble due to the actions of his undesirable personas, who call themselves the Horde. But under the leadership of main good personality, Barry, Kevin has found regular work and a place of his own.
All is not as it seems, however. Dr. Fletcher slowly comes to realize that Dennis, a member of the Horde, has taken control of Kevin and started impersonating Barry at his therapy sessions to throw off suspicion. Dennis is a meticulous and highly intelligent schemer with a history of sexual impropriety involving young women--three of whom have just gone missing from a local mall.
This being a thriller, of course Dennis and the rest of the Horde are keeping the three girls locked up in an undisclosed basement. One of the abductees, Casey, builds a rapport with Horde member Hedwig. Despite being a perpetual nine-year-old, Hedwig alone has the power to give any other personality control of Kevin’s body at will. It was he who overthrew Barry and freed Dennis so no one would make fun of him anymore.
As if being held captive by a certified madman weren’t trouble enough, Casey soon learns that she and her friends are in truly dire peril. The Horde have a nightmarish motive for the abductions beyond Dennis’ degenerate proclivities. The undesirable personalities have formed a cult entirely within Kevin devoted to a theretofore unknown twenty-fourth personality known only as the Beast. The girls are sacrifices intended to make the Beast manifest.
Dr. Fletcher confronts Dennis in therapy and questions him about the Beast--out of professional interest as much as concern for her patient. In her years of studying Kevin’s disorder, she has developed a theory that the lesser changes evident from one alter to the next--one can be righthanded and another lefthanded; their IQs differ; one of Kevin’s alters is even diabetic while he is not--could be a key to the next stage of human evolution.
The Horde see the Beast as the validation and ultimate expression of this theory. They revere him as superhuman; practically a god. Those who have been broken by suffering are superior, not inferior, to those who’ve never known pain. When the Beast emerges, he will devour the impure and avenge the broken.
And emerge he does. Casey is spared from the Beast’s rampage only when he sees the scars from her own childhood trauma. Telling her to rejoice in her superiority over her lessers, the Beast vanishes into a maze of steam tunnels and leaves Casey to contemplate the wondrous horrors she’s witnessed.
But that’s not the twist ending. The real surprise is so subtly hinted at as to be unforeseeable before the final scene cameo that gives it away. All Shyamalan gives the audience to go on is:
Split is set in Philadelphia.
Kevin was left to his mother’s torments when his father boarded a train and never returned.
Hedwig describes the Beast as extremely muscular with a flowing mane and long fingers.
Observant Shyamalan fans may remember seeing something matching that description before …
It occurs in Unbreakable when David Dunn’s sin-detecting clairsentience pings a woman in a crowd whom we’re given to understand abuses her son.
And indeed, as the last scene in Split reveals, it is a sequel to Unbreakable, filmed sixteen years after its predecessor.
What is now the Eastrail 177 series has its third superman, and just as David Dunn is the antipode to Mr. Glass, the Beast stands apart from them both.
To recap, David’s superhuman archetype is that of the unfallen man still gifted with the preternatural integrity and knowledge everyone else lost to original sin. He enforces the natural and divine law.
Mr. Glass is the posthuman supergenius of Campbellian science fiction. He believes that he acts in mankind’s best interests while holding himself above ordinary human judgment since the masses cannot comprehend his advanced thought process.
The Beast represents a third type of superman--Nietzsche’s übermensch with a twist. While he claims liberation from society’s morals and sets himself up as his own god, the Beast dedicates himself to avenging the broken. After all, it was the trauma which caused what society considers an infirmity that unlocked the Beast’s superhuman power. He sees the abused and the tormented as other potential superbeings like himself. Therefore, he acknowledges a duty to protect them.
Viewed in this light, the Beast is less of a pure villain and more of flawed hero or villain-protagonist. Like David, he protects the weak according to a code. Like Mr. Glass, he believes that his self-made morality justifies behavior that society at large considers evil.
Another parallel with Unbreakable is Split’s reliance on a virtuoso acting performance to suspend viewers’ disbelief in an inherently silly magic system. James McAvoy’s Horde beats the odds and tops Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Mr. Glass. Through voice and mannerisms alone, McAvoy is equally convincing as a repressed stalker, a patrician Englishwoman, an exploited young boy, and an atavistic superman.
Split doesn’t quite hit the heights of Unbreakable, though. The sequel’s main premise is murky and frankly nonsensical. Partly as a result, its plot is rather convoluted. The glut of viewpoint characters may further confuse casual viewers. Happily, the excellent performances help maintain interest.
Few lapsed artists achieve a glorious return to form like Shyamalan crafted with Split. If you liked Unbreakable but haven’t seen its belated sequel, I advise you to remedy that oversight--preferably via the used DVD bin.
With a $100 million hit on his hands for the first time in too long, Shyamalan set out to film a third entry in the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. We’ll examine Split‘s sequel Glass next.
In the meantime, please enjoy Hedwig’s breakdancing.