For the first time in more than a decade, audiences and critics alike are applauding the work of the once beloved, now suspiciously loathed, director M. Night Shyamalan. His most recent work, “Split” (2017) is a suspense/horror picture about a man (James McAvoy) with disassociative identity disorder who kidnaps three girls. Because it is a Shyamalan movie, this is not a straight crime or even a slasher horror story, but delves into more unusual territory. However, it lacks the hard twist that most of his other films like “The Sixth Sense” and “The Village” are best remembered for. There is a sort of soft twist at the very, very end of the movie, so soft, in fact, that I don’t think twist is the right word for it. Nevertheless, it was the rumor of this twist that got me excited to see the movie; too excited, as it turns out, because the film left me very disappointed.
Be warned: I’m going to reveal that “twist” right now. If you don’t want to know about it, don’t read the rest of this post.
The final scene reveals that “Split” is set in the same universe as “Unbreakable” and thus it is, of sorts, a superhero film. More accurately, it’s a supervillain film. I was told vaguely about this connection going into it, and as I said it kindled my excitement. Of course, I’m a fan of superheroes, but I also loved “Unbreakable” (2000). It’s actually my favorite superhero film ever (right after “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)), and the very best of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. I kept waiting for Bruce Willis’s superhero character David Dunn to appear and fight McAvoy’s Horde. That confrontation never happens. Dunn appears in literally the last scene, setting up a third movie that, I fear, Shyamalan will never make. It’s been 17 years since “Unbreakable”, after all.
To be sure, my dashed expectations are responsible for a lot of my disappointment with the film, but they are by no means the sole source of that disappointment. There are a few puzzling scenes that seemed to have been introduced solely to mislead the audience by injecting irrelevant detail or, maybe, details that will only be explained in a third film. (I’ve already done enough spoilering about “Split”, so I won’t go into them in detail, but the scenes that spring to mind are Casey with the walkie-talkie and Dr. Fletcher’s mention of her correspondent from Baltimore). Much worse, however, are the messages the film conveys, and its moral lessons. And no, I’m not talking about the alleged “stigmatization of mental illness.”
“Split,” as I have said, is not a superhero movie, but a supervillain movie. As such, the bad guy wins. I don’t like that, but I can accept it. What I find less acceptable is the exaltation of the bad guy. This is not done in the normal way that “deconstructive” superhero stories often do, by justifying or celebrating the villain’s evil deeds. To be sure, the villain in “Split” is portrayed as unnerving, unlikeable, fragile, dysfunctional and, in some sense, helpless. But he is also held up as a superior stage in human evolution. The Horde, or at least his “final form” of The Beast, is portrayed as a gateway to ultimate (super)human potential. And this is not done in an arrogant, self-absorbed Dr. Doom-addresses-the-captives kind of way. No, most of this talk about the villain’s greatness comes from another, a psychiatrist who seems more interested in unlocking the villain’s inner mysteries than helping her patient by heeding the warnings that his more peaceful personalities are trying to give her.
Even worse than that, though, is the way that the film celebrates the passivity of the Casey, the ostensible heroine. The two girls who try to fight back or escape are dumb and their struggle is futile, and Casey gladly tells them so. Flashbacks reveal that Casey has a long, gut-wrenching history of acquiescing to victimhood, and she is content to be passive up until the moment she’s about to be killed. Her final attempt to resist is also futile, but she is spared anyway – by the villain’s recognition, and celebration of, her victimhood. Casey’s unhealed mental and emotional wounds, The Horde tells us, are proof of her superiority. As a final kick in the teeth, when Casey has the opportunity to save herself from the movie’s other predator, it’s left ambiguous as to whether she takes it.
I was taken aback that Shyamalan, who has often been the target of critics and pundits who suspect him of harboring sympathies toward religion and tradition that they consider invidious, could have written an ending that seemed like the distilled essence of Social Justice Gangsterism. But maybe that does make some sense. This is a movie about the triumph of villainy, after all.
If you like movies where the bad guys win, or if you like the sort of upside down morality tales where virtues like courage–or even simply living a life of peace and happiness–are despised as useless and weak against the inevitable triumph of evil, the deviant, and abnormal, you will probably love “Split.” But it left a bad taste in my mouth.