Split (2017) and the RETURN of Mr. Shyamalan?
Reviewing new movies here on Machine Mean is a rare opportunity. Typically, we keep to the oldies but goodies, and even oldies but not always goodies. Every now and then though a new box office movie will lurch across our spectrum. Since the previews for SPLIT started airing, I knew I had to see the movie. M. Night Shyamalan is a topic of many interesting conversations. Lots of love and hate floated his way, so much so that anything new he puts out is usually met with suspicion. Here’s a short history. In 1999, he wowed audiences with The Sense Sense, begging the question of many moviegoers, “Who the fuck is M. Night Shyamalan?” And for better or worse, we would soon find out. In 2000, he broke our expectations with Unbreakable (see what I did there?), and for many Unbreakable became an easy favorite. He gave us Signs in 2002, not just with the movie but also the precarious slip he would find himself falling into as a screenwriter and director. I find it very humorous that Shyamalan played the role of Ray Reddy, the drunk who killed Rev. Graham’s wife in an accident, his “falling asleep behind the wheel” is a somewhat prophetic scene given what he would eventually do to his own “self” created sub-genre, the “twist ending,” or the “Shyamalan Effect,” as it were. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Signs, but you have to admit the ending was kinda bullshit. In 2004, The Village wasn’t a bad place to visit, but you can’t really go back once you know the truth. 2006 is when it all came apart. Maybe it was ego. Maybe it was studio pressure of creating box office hit after box office hit…whatever it was Lady in the Water was probably one of the more arrogant films I’ve ever seen. In 2008, Shyamalan collapsed completely with one of the worst movies I’ve ever forced myself to watch with The Happening. It was a horrible story. And it had horrible acting. The premise was built on solid ground, but it spiraled and it spiraled hard. And as for The Last Airbender and After Earth…I’ve seen neither films nor do I care to.
There are two movies, however, not included above, both of which that I believe have brought about the return of M. Night Shyamalan. In 2010, Devil released to theaters. Not a lot was known about this movie. Shyamalan did not direct nor did he write the screenplay. According to IMDb, Shyamalan is only credited as a “story” writer. Overall, audiences were about so-so on it, as with horror movie nerds. But even with only about a 50% approval rating, still significantly better than Mr. Shyamalan’s previous movies. To me, Devil was his way, or maybe the studio’s way of “testing the waters,” so to speak. Shyamalan may not be credited for directing or writing the screenplay, but you can tell he had a part. There are plenty of Shyamalanisms present to know its one of his. And Devil’s partial success led to the start of his return. In 2015, he wrote and directed The Visit. Talk about a big risk. Late to the game of steady-cam pictures, The Visit was a surprise success among horror fans. Plenty of dread and suspense and it was topped off with his trademark Shyamalan Effect. Very risky, if you ask me, but one that paid off. After we were done Visiting grandma and grandpa’s, many of us (those who probably spend way to much time thinking about horror movies) were wondering when the next Shyamalan would be. Would there even be another?
Don’t worry, I’ll give fair warning whenever I’m about to spoil anything.
That being said, we need to talk about Split.
For starters, bravo to the team who had put together that trailer. Not too much was revealed; just enough to wet our whistle. Perfect balance of information and intrigue. Kevin (James McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). There remains a 24th personality who has yet to materialize. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him…as well as everyone around him. With a synopsis like that, who could resist? Split dominated the box office over the weekend, pulling in some 40mil nationwide, but I wonder if a majority of those sales were from Saturday and not from Friday. As in, were movie goers cautious and when reports of how good it was surfaced on social media, people flocked to theaters the next day? Seems plausible. I for one went on a Saturday and every movie showing according to the board had been sold out.
Can you believe that? An M. Night Shyamalan movie selling out. When was the last time that happened? Had it even happened before? We’re probably talking Sixth Sense or Unbreakable era Shyamalan…which is interesting because that is the vibe of Split. I didn’t get new Shyamalan vibes, I got Unbreakable…borderline Sixth Sense vibes. Split wasn’t scary, per say, so don’t go into it hoping to jump out of your seats. And I actually appreciated the film more because of that. When the biggest horror movie to come out on a Friday the 13th is called Bye Bye Man, it makes me really fucking sick of the whole jump scare bullshit fad among younger audiences. Cheap thrills trumping solid storytelling and the artistic buildup of dread. And dread is exactly what the vibe was throughout Split. There were some def moments of lag, but that’s okay, or it’s okay if you’re like me and you enjoy getting to know the characters, glimpsing backgrounds and history that WILL play a larger role in the movie down the road. Not only is the storytelling really solid on this one, but the acting, oh my, the acting was freakishly great. And I mean great as in compared to Shyamalan’s previous work. Split isn’t groundbreaking, though it is certainly good. The loudest applause has to go to McAvoy. Even in the previews, I had a good feeling he was going to knock this role out of the park. He did NOT disappoint. Playing a character with multipersonalities can end up in two ways. Coming off as a big nasty stinking poop OR coming off as a big awesome creepy as hell pleasure to watch. If you haven’t yet indulged, I suggest you do, especially if you’ve seen and enjoyed his Sixth Sense, Unbreakable era films.
Now on to the SPOILERS.
I was satisfied with the flashback sense with Casey Cook, played by up and coming actress Anya Taylor-Joy. I found myself wondering throughout what her role was. She was set apart from the others. Her responses were different. From the get go we get a sneak peek at what her history may intel when she whispers hastily to one of her “friends” to pee herself as she’s being dragged off by one of Kevin’s more OCD personalities. That’s not really something someone would normally rush to blurt out unless said person had experienced some sort of similar situation before. I also thought for a little while if she was part of the kidnapping. But seeing her reactions, trying to escape, left me searching for other clues. And this searching aspect is a big plus for me, it invites participation. We’re not just witnesses, we’re players. However…there was no twist ending. There was only revelation.
The lack of a Shyamalan twist did not hinder my enjoyment of the film. It was still fun trying to guess what was going on. When more of Cook’s history was revealed, we learned why she was reacting differently from the other girls with her. We see this sweet little child who loves her father. But then we see her lifelong abuse from her uncle turned guardian, both tragic and heartbreaking. Yet in the end, her scars is what saves her from The Horde, the 24th personalities persona, who views the suffered as pure and those who have not suffered as impure. The Hordes logic is somewhat intriguing. Through suffering, we are made complete, evolved from a non-suffered, non-touched, non-spoiled perspective. The evolution of one’s character through suffering is a relatable philosophy, one that has a sort of religious connotation. This evolution is made manifest, according to The Horde, physically. For Cook, it was her scars, and not just her ability to survive, that thwarted The Horde’s advance. Throughout the movie, we’re also given this idea of near superhuman abilities multi-personality disorder patients can implement. Blind being able to see. A weak person becoming incredibly strong. Even the most minute, a diabetic personality in an otherwise non-diabetic body. For Kevin, while many of his personalities exhibit extraordinary “powers,” it is his final personality, The Horde, in which exhibits the peak of human evolution.
Who mouthed WTF when The Horde started climbing the walls? I certainly did. It’s another one of those intriguing thought exercises, that if The Horde is the peak of human evolution, why is he so animalistic? He behaves and feeds like an animal. And Shyamalan spared no time at the end showing us how much of an animal this personality is. Tying it off with the revelation that they were being kept in the maintenance tunnels below a zoo, provokes further thought and begs the question of mankind, are we more than beasts?
And I’d be amiss not to mention the cherry on top of this sundae. The last scene, at a dinner and the news, re-telling this crime, gives the name of the “still at large” murderer, calling him The Horde. People are talking and connecting the strange name to another infamous murderer. They can’t remember his name, only that he was in a wheelchair or something. And the camera pans to Bruce Willis who knows who these people are talking about, the name Mr. Glass. I couldn’t believe the connection. A very nice surprise to end the movie with. One I hope pans out to a sequel.
Split, for me, marked the return of M. Night Shyamalan. Everything made sense, even the extraordinary. There was nothing arrogant about the movie, in fact, it was actually kind of tragic in its own right, somewhat similar in a way to Sixth Sense. Split could have easily been his third film. It has that feeling of fitting in as an evolution to Unbreakable. This is of corse just my two cents. for those who’ve seen Split, what are your thoughts? Has Shyamalan returned? Or was Split another dud?
My rating: 5/5
Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of dark fiction. He resides in Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter. He is published with The Sinister Horror Company’s horror anthology The Black Room Manuscripts. His debut novel, Reinheit, is published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein and Apocalypse Meow. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, both Dwelling and Emerging and Conceiving (coming soon), are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston Clear Lake with a BA in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he does author interviews and reviews on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can keep up with Thomas and all his strange books by joining his author newsletter, at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.
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