Split: A Film To Remind Us That M. Night Shyamalan is a Brilliant Liar

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M. Night Shyamalan is a victim of his own success. When the movie Unbreakable came about, audiences didn’t know what they were looking at when they walked in and when they walked out, they were blown away. The misdirection and sheer visual artistry that went into that movie were amazing. It thrilled critics, film geeks, and casual moviegoers alike. It was a triumph.

The Sixth Sense set a new bar. Audiences were still new to Shyamalan’s style of deep, thoughtful narrative combined with exquisite imagery and his signature big twists. He washed you over with a compelling narrative, filled your eyes with wonder, and then at the end pulled the rug out from under you. His genius was pretty much confirmed.

But there’s a problem with this formula: the twist works best when you’re not looking for it. And as soon as you put the name Shaymalan on something, you start looking for it.

Signs earned ridicule for some weak plot points that have since been bettered by fan theory. The Village was a lovely film, but again failed to wow, partially I imagine because the big reveal was easy to guess and that the rest of the story didn’t hit people as hard as the previous tales. The Lady in the Water was derided as self indulgent, even though it had amazing performances by serious actors. Then The Happening occurred and skepticism in Shyamalan’s abilities turned to ridicule. He did what should have been a safe film, an adaptation of an already popular franchise, but The Last Airbender turned out to be a blow to his directorial kneecaps as it left fans and critics alike disappointed.

His name became a reason to skip a movie. And personally, I did skip quite a few.

And then, Split. Damn if he didn’t come back in a big way, and with his biggest twist yet.

I will warn you that what follows includes some heavy spoilers, so if you want to see the movie as it was intended, read no further. If you want to geek out with me, come on! Let’s go!

This is not a friendly father daughter chat.

So the base plot of Split is pretty straightforward psychological horror: a man with multiple personalities kidnaps a trio of young girls and terrorizes them with tales of “The Beast”. If you’ve watched a trailer, you already know this, though this is a movie that if you hadn’t seen the trailer, if you walked in completely cold, it would be even better, as the director takes his sweet time in revealing even the tiny bit of the story listed above.

Personally, I avoid trailers. As I said earlier, as soon as I saw the man’s name on it, I was wondering what the twist would be. The fact that James McAvoy was in it sealed it for me, but I thought I had it figured out.

The execution of the movie is great. The camera work tells the story well, framing the tale in menace and a simplicity that makes the more outrageous of the tale’s aspects more than believable. Every performance is top notch, from the sympathetic but savvy psychologist played by Betty Buckley to the terrified but grounded teen played by Anya Taylor-Joy, to the several roles played by McAvoy, each one distinct and none of them the cookie cutter stereotype other people playing multiple personality characters fall into (dude deserves an award for this).

The story itself is remarkably straightforward for Shyamalan, so much so that I started to wonder if the twist to this movie was that he was playing it straight. Yes, there are minor reveals about characters and backstory. There is tragedy and depths we’re not told about until they happen. There’s the director’s cameo. And there is the central tale of survival, fear and madness.

All of that is window dressing. The twist is that this movie is a sequel.

I know, right?

I’m not a deep geek when it comes to movies, but I appreciate touches like how Shyamalan framed scenes in Unbreakable to look like comic panels. It’s things like that which elevate the art form and make people like me who read the trivia on IMDB.com really happy. I noticed that he’d adopted a similar style at the beginning, but didn’t think anything of it.

It’s not until the end, once we’ve established the fate of our kidnapped girls and their kidnapper, that we get to find out what this movie was about. It’s not until after they throw up a title screen, just before the credits, and we get a shot of a diner and a news broadcast discussing the events of the story. It’s not until the very last moment, when we see Bruce Willis, sitting at a counter, in the persona of the main character from Unbreakable.

In any other film, such a cameo would be a toss off. Fan service. A shout out to those who watched his films before. But no, this was the point of the whole dam piece. This was the movie. The entire near two hours of the telling was to bring us to that moment, to set up that returning character for the final chapter of his arc. It was to establish a villain in way that you can’t do in a 5 minute snippet at the beginning of a summer blockbuster.

People had been saying they wanted to see the sequel to Unbreakable. But how do you make a sequel to a film when your whole career is built on not letting people see things coming? You don’t tell anyone, and you do a damn good job with it. That’s how.

When I saw Willis on the screen, at first, I felt cheated. Then the magnificence of what I was witnessing sunk in. I hadn’t been this giddy about a superhero film since Deadpool.

Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve read this far, and I’ve just spoiled the big moment for you, I’d say see the thing. If you’ve already seen it, I share my happy dance with you. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, go back and watch Unbreakable then get this one on DVD, because in my own plot twist, I’m writing this review at the end of the film’s first run lifespan.

This is one for the film geeks. And it’s a doozy.