In case you couldn’t tell by the headline, there are spoilers ahead…
“It was a garbage goal.”
“No, no. You gotta twist them and fuck with them.”
“It was a garbage win.”
–SLAP SHOT (1977)
M. Night Shyamalan’s SPLIT was the secret screening at last year’s FANTASTIC FEST. There’s always a sense of tension, unease, and excitement when you’re seated for the secret screening; this movie could be anything. ROUGE ONE? A secret sequel to HALLOWEEN? There are always rumors. After a tense, creepy opening, Shyamalan’s name flashes on the screen and you can sense the unease of the audience remains.
Shyamalan is a divisive filmmaker as I stated in my review of SPLIT from last year. He has two, maybe three undeniable classics under his belt (even fans seem to waver on SIGNS) and then a slew of films that plenty of filmgoers skipped or were disappointed in. Shyamalan went from the Hollywood it kid to all but having his name removed from the marketing for 2013’s AFTER EARTH as he was seen by some to be box-office poison. The filmmaker appeared to build up some goodwill with 2015’s found-footage thriller, THE VISIT which was a hit for production company Blumhouse. Shyamalan and Blumhouse teamed up once again for SPLIT, which is going wide this week with critics calling it a serious comeback for the filmmaker.
I seriously disliked SPLIT. I found it to be low-rent DePalma (read that as third rate Hitchcock) that is never as fun or as sleazy as the filmmaker’s works that Shyamalan is attempting to riff on. James McAvoy’s Kevin kidnaps three young ladies and holds them captive in his lair hidden in the bowels of the Philadelphia Zoo. The movie hints at a child molestation subplot that is just left hanging there and shoehorns in a supernatural element with McAvoy’s character transforming into a horrific monster that is one of his many personalities. SPLIT is chock full of interesting ideas that have no follow through or simply go nowhere. SPLIT ultimately just ends up being at its best middling and at its worst frustrating.
And then the twist happens and it is absolutely infuriating.
THE SIXTH SENSE was a late summer hit that seemingly came out of nowhere and has become a classic of supernatural storytelling. The film was a box-office success and all but christened Shyamalan as the new Spielberg; a filmmaker who can deftly balance supernatural thrills with family drama. Perhaps one of the reasons that so many cinephiles around my age (I’m 36) are really pulling for Shyamalan to succeed is that we were all dropping out of film school around the release of THE SIXTH SENSE and saw in him a filmmaker that grew up with the same cinema that held close in our childhoods. Hell, the studios seem to want him to succeed as much as we do as they keep giving him money to make movies.
The much talked about twist where it is revealed that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time (its worth noting that I didn’t see the film until October of that year and it remained unspoiled, that’s what it was like in a pre-Facebook era, kids) never feels like a cheat, but rather adds another layer to the film, rewarding astute viewers and lending itself to repeat viewings. The success of THE SIXTH SENSE—and it’s big reveal—arguably fueled Shyamalan’s already large ego, and made him think that he needed to have a twist in everyone of his films. Sometimes it works (UNBREAKABLE’s entire marketing campaign led audiences to believe that his superhero movie was a supernatural thriller) and sometimes it feels like a cheat to the audience as with THE VILLAGE despite having one foot in THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
SPLIT’s twist is that it that the film is sort of a sequel to UNBREAKABLE, or at least takes place in the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe (the SCU). As the end credits begin to roll, we cut to a diner featuring patrons watching news reports of James McAvoy’s “The Beast” terrorizing Anya Taylor-Hoy’s Casey Cook. The camera glides through the restaurant and a customer states that this reminds them of that thing that happened a few years back where that guy blew up that train.
“What was his name?” they ask.
“Mr. Glass” respond’s Bruce Willis reprising his role as security guard David Dunn, as he sips his morning coffee,
The audience at FANTASTIC FEST went up for grabs as I ran out of the theater, fiending for another Shinerbock. As a fan of UNBREAKABLE, I even felt a twinge of excitement. I’d love to finally see the long planned sequel in Shyamalan’s planned trilogy. In September of 2010, Shyamalan revealed that he would retool the villain planned for the UNBREAKABLE sequel into a different film he was working on. Unfortunately, the film turned out to be SPLIT.
If SPLIT were a better movie, the end tag would have acted as a clever parody of the way MARVEL and DC films always end up being commercials for the next big budget blockbuster. It’s especially funny as Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE is arguably a better superhero movie than anything MARVEL or DC has put out in the past eight years. That’s not the case though. As it stands, the Bruce Willis scene makes audiences excited for the next adventure of David Dunn’s rain poncho, but after that feeling subsides, it just makes you wish that that’s the movie you had just watched instead of SPLIT. If Dunn appeared halfway through SPLIT and the film turned into a bonkers, Cannon-esque mish-mash of a creature feature, a DePalma influenced psychodrama, and a superhero movie, I’d be singing it’s praises right now. SPLIT’s twist is as Ned Braden told Reggie Dunlop in 1977’s hockey comedy SLAP SHOT, “a garbage goal” and after such a slog of a film, to end on such a terrifically high note is “a garbage win.”