By John Pilchard
To hear John in 'Episode 15: John Makes Movies', you can listen on iTunes here
I can still remember the days, usually summer days, of going to the movie theater with my mother. These primarily fond memories helped to mold me into the movie viewer I am today. Back then I was much, much younger. Back then, my mother and I enjoyed the work of M. Night Shyamalan. Together we sat and watched intricate stories with unfolding twists play out in front of us. This was the time when M. Night was on top of the world. I look back on those 3 years and realize, slightly older now, that those years are long gone.
I won’t harass you with specifics, but I will. Do you remember, Lady in the Water, The Village, and most importantly to help drive this point home, The Last Air Bender? Sure, maybe the last one there doesn’t count because that wasn’t Mr. Shyamalan’s source material. It seems that anytime anyone attempts to adapt a popular anime for an American audience, they usually crash and burn, like when that fire nation attacked. I’m not 100 percent on the details though; I couldn’t even finish the movie.
Those aforementioned films were stinkers. There really is no sound way to argue against that. The director who was once on top of the world began to rely too heavily on the plot twist device. He then forgot about story, or more so, he decided to over complicate the story to exacerbate that plot twist at the end. That doesn’t always work, and after a few more tries, it still doesn’t work. In The Village’s defense, that movie was pretty good for about the first half hour, however you can only watch that movie once.
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Please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think one person can create The 6th Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, and not be a talented director/visionary. I don’t think M. Night is some sort of one hit wonder, and I don’t think he’s at the point where anyone can call him a “has-been.” Do people still say that? That’s the twist! Last year, while being slightly older, but also slightly younger, I was excited for his film The Visit. I was excited for Shyamalan’s triumphant return, but then upon viewing it, that excitement was deflated. Anytime a child actor or animated character has to “freestyle” rap in a movie, I’m done. I don’t care how good of a movie it might be.
I’m also not here to talk about The Visit for any longer than I have to. Back when it came out, I wanted nothing more than for M. Night to become a success again. It didn’t happen. Split is/was my second set of soaring hope for a triumphant, or respectable return of M. Night Shyamalan. I sat in a dark theatre with my hopes cruising at free to walk about the cabin level high. Split is not The Visit. Split sits somewhere between Signs and The Lady in the Water. Split is much closer to the water though.
I want to focus on what is good about Split before I get into my aggressive diatribe of things I won’t be able to take back once this is on the Internet. James McAvoy was wonderful, and more importantly, believable at playing someone with 24 separate personalities. When the previews for Split started to trickle out I was concerned that the role that McAvoy was taking on could be laughable. While there was some welcomed snickering throughout the theatre when the oddly loveable Hedwig would uncomfortably swear, a dropped pin could be heard whenever the personality of Dennis, or Kevin Wendell Crumb was commandeering the screen. McAvoy gave each character a unique set of mannerisms. It’s commendable, what he did that not many other actors could have pulled off. The personalities were just the right amount of off kilter, leading the viewers to ask themselves, “who are we going to see next?”
I’ll even argue that the pacing of Split was top notch. The underlying feeling of dread, accompanied by the build up to a slow burn, made the viewers need to understand Dennis/Kevin, and the rest of that kooky gang even more. The use of cross cutting to tell the horrific back-story of Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, served to amplify the relationship she had with the various personalities. Her back-story tells the audience that Casey is a fighter who can take whatever is thrown her way.
M. Night toyed with me, in a way I find unforgiveable. Throughout the film the audience is being teased, there is the constant mention of, “The Beast.” From the first mention, our minds start to conjure up the images of what a monster this mentally broken man could become, what 24 separate entities could create. Shyamalan went so far as to show us hand drawn pictures of what the werewolf like “Beast” could become. He did this on several occasions throughout the film. Some might call that symbolism, not I. I love monster movies, always have, always will. By the end of Split’s third act, I was wronged beyond repair.
My first biggest gripe with Split is that James McAvoy didn’t turn into an actual beast, like a wild animal, Beauty and the Beast type of beast. I wanted a monster movie, and that’s what I deserved, it was dangling right in front of my face the whole time. Some might argue that that would have been too obvious. Well, doing the obvious thing would be the new kind of twist in the M. Night Shymalan world. The Meta twist would be not having a twist. What a surprise, doing something that people would actually expect. Instead of the past decade of flat movies with a twist at the end that nobody saw coming. This might sound like the nonsensical ravings of a mad man; I mean I am trying to argue that I didn’t like a movie because it didn’t do the obvious thing. But that’s only a half-truth because I actually hated the movie due to the fact that I was robbed of what could have been a really cool monster flick.
I spent $9.50 on a ticket and all I got was an extra veiny James McAvoy slippin’ and a sliddin’ on some walls. Why didn’t he turn into “The Beast?” Or, why was this iteration of “The Beast” so grounded in reality?
This leads to my second, and final gripe with the film Split. Once the viewer is exposed to the final minutes of the movie, everything prior was useless, or worse, everything was shoehorned in. throughout the film, there are themes of what it means to be pure, and what happens when you are in fact a “broken person.” Strength comes from pain, and how we try to utilize that pain is what truly matters. “The Beast,” (who can still talk in beast form, (come on!)), delivers a heartfelt speech to Casey during the climax of the film. I want to make note that I’m using the term “climax,” loosely. Once “The Beast” notices the cuts and scars on Casey’s arms, from years of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse by her uncle, “The Beast” tells her that she is pure. The pure are the ones who have endured the most difficult of hardships. It was a heartfelt nod to the abusive past of Kevin Wendell Crumb, a past that sparked the eventual splits in his mind. The protagonist and antagonist come face to face, (again?), and then the antagonist disappears somewhere in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia? Oh, right.
The last few minutes of Split reveal Bruce Willis revitalizing his role as the grounded, real to this world super hero from Unbreakable, David Dunn. Sure, that’s a twist I did not see coming, but it’s not a plot twist. This is the equivalent to Marvel Studios after credit teasers, it doesn’t drive the plot forward, it just attempts to excite us for what is to come. Except it seems that Split hindered on this pivotal bit of information. If Kevin had escaped, and the film had ended, the audience would have been pissed, like I was, like I still am. Here comes the shoehorn effect, the saving grace for Split is that it teases us for a sequel that no one really asked for, while simultaneously eradicating any effect the first half of the film may have had.
The only split here is 2000, to 2017. A lot can change in 17 years. It’s proven that a lot can change in 3 years. A new director can grace the cover of Newsweek with large print text claiming that said director is the next Steven Spielberg. Then said director creates After Earth. If you’re drunk enough, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Happening are essentially the same movie. It’s as if M. Night Shymalan was flipping through Variety and asked himself what’s popular these days, what are the cool kids watching in the cinema houses?
Then he answered his question, assumedly out loud to no one in particular, and decided super hero movies are the way to go. It’s time to get rekindling a classic. Unbreakable is perfect as it is. It was also released at just the right time. Unbreakable came about just after Blade was released, and arrived just before Brian Singer’s X-Men movies. Unbreakable was unprecedented, audiences were not fatigued by super heroes when they met David Dunn. A lot has changed in the past 17 years, the world has changed, 9/11 has happened, VHS has been eradicated, people can now stream movies at home, legally or illegally. More relevant to Mr. Shyamalan, his audience has changed.
What’s to be assumed is that M. Night is setting out to build an entire world that takes place in the Unbreakable universe, because that’s where movies are at right now. He is going the way of many others, were films are sequels, prequels, adaptions, or remakes. What’s to be expected, a sequel to Split, which is also a sequel to Unbreakable slated to be released, oh, I don’t know, somewhere near the summer of 2019. Remember when the first Spider-Man came out? It stood alone, able to be appreciated for what it was, a beginning, middle, and end. It was clear-cut, a teenager figuring himself out, with powers only he had. Spider-Man was a boy versus a terrifying villain, who he respected. When it ended, it ended well.
Now imagine the first Iron Man. Think about what it could have been, or could have been remembered for if Marvel hadn’t immediately tried to shoehorn in the teaser for The Avengers after the credits. Iron Man didn’t have time to relish in it’s own success before the excitement faded, and was rekindled for something else, something bigger, flashier, and better. Neither did Split. 5 years from now Split won’t be remembered for what M. Night set out for it to be remembered for. Split will be remembered as the sequel to Unbreakable that no one asked for, and the prequel to whatever happens in the near future.
If you’re looking for something concrete, I’ll say this; Split is a pretty good movie for other people. It just wasn’t for me. I wanted something different. I refuse to like it because I didn’t get what I wanted, (I know how that sounds), and worse, I got something I really didn’t want. Watching Split is kind of like having a birthday on Christmas, and on December 25th, your parents forgot about both.
Plot twist, it’s because you’re an orphan.
Go see Split, it’s worth seeing. According to other reviews, it’s doing pretty well. And even if you don’t like it either, it will still generate thoughtful after viewing conversations. You know the types of conversations as your walking out of the theatre, from a date, with friends or family, or if you were just looking for a quick distraction, it served its purpose. In a world filled with sequels, prequels, adaptions, and remakes the after viewing conversations are becoming more and more scarce, or all too familiar. “It wasn’t as good as the first one.” “I miss Tobey Mcguire.” Or my favorite, “I didn’t ask for a reboot!”
At least Split was unique, and attempted to try something new, even though I didn’t get my monster. I can applaud that. Maybe Split was a message from M. Night saying that he’s starting to shake off the monsters in his head that are, After Earth, Lady in the Water, The Village, The Visit, and all those other kooky misfits no one liked. Like when Mel Gibson’s character from Signs, Reverend Graham Hess dons his clerical collar at the end of the film again, M. Night Shyamalan is saying to us, my legs aren’t as strong as they used to be, but I’m coming back.