***WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN SPLIT AND ONE DAY INTEND TO. IF YOU HAVE ALREADY SEEN SPLIT OR HAVE ZERO INTEREST IN EVER SEEING IT, PLEASE PROCEED TO READING MY CRAZY RAMBLINGS.*****
‘Split’ (2017) is directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy in the leading roles.
Right before the big climactic fight at the end of ‘Split’, the film takes a moment to show us a scene of the main antagonist, Kevin, visiting a train station. He lays some flowers near the tracks and then proceeds to board an empty train and transform into his “beast” form. Upon first seeing this scene you might be left with some confusion. Why does he lay flowers here? Why does he transform aboard the train? If you paid close attention to earlier parts of the film you’ll remember that Kevin’s therapist briefly alludes to his father having died in a train accident. This led to Kevin being left alone with his abusive mother, causing severe childhood trauma and ultimately leading to his development of multiple personalities. This explains why the train station has particular significance to Kevin. Paying respects to his dead father before transforming into the Beast serves as an effectively chilling scene. However, there is a deeper significance to this scene that isn’t fully realized until the very last scene of the film.
The big twist at the end of ‘Split’ is amazing for many reasons. Not just because it reveals that the movie takes place in the same universe as the movie ‘Unbreakable’, but because of the particular way in which this twist is revealed, and the way it completely changes your perspective on the entire film. On a surface level, perhaps the revelation doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. All that really happens is Bruce Willis shows up and says one line that infers that ‘Split’ takes place in the Unbreakable universe. It’s not particularly exciting, and contains some somewhat cheesy dialogue. But lets examine it a little further, because, on a technical level, the reveal is actually quite masterfully done. To really see the full picture of the reveal we have to rewind the film a little. In the scene just prior to Bruce Willis showing up in the diner we see Kevin talking to his various personalities through a mirror. The first time I watched this scene I had a strange feeling. It felt as though there was some big revelation happening that I wasn’t picking up on. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew something important must be happening. Then right before the scene ended, it suddenly clicked. The soundtrack had changed. The music sounded familiar to me, but it wasn’t from any theme heard during the preceding parts of the film. I later found out that it was the soundtrack to Unbreakable. So before Bruce Willis even shows up, M. Night is planting the seeds for his big reveal. If you recognize the music you know immediately what’s going to happen. And if you go back and watch that scene again you’ll see that just as the music starts to play you see shards of broken glass on the ground. The broken glass, at least in my opinion, alludes to the character of “Mr. Glass” from Unbreakable, who gets his name for having extremely brittle bones that break like glass. Kevin talking to himself through the mirror is also very reminiscent of the way a lot of scenes were shot in Unbreakable, with characters often being shown in reflections.
As the music continues to play, we are taken to the diner where the customers are all intently watching the news. This news gives us another hint at the big reveal: people have started to refer to Kevin as “The Horde”. Those that have seen ‘Unbreakable’ will remember that the film was actually a secret superhero origin story, and that, similar to comic books, superheroes and super-villains in this universe all have alternative identities and names. To drive this point further, we then get the final two lines of dialogue to cement the film’s connection to Unbreakable:
Random Lady: “This is like that crazy guy in the wheelchair they put away 15 years ago. And they gave him a funny name too…..what was it?”
David Dunn (Bruce Willis): “Mr. Glass”.
So, aside from the obvious parallel to the ending of ‘Unbreakable’, which also ends with the name “Mr. Glass” (“They called me Mr. Glass.”), what exactly makes this ending so amazing? In many ways, it’s very similar to the post credits scenes of other superhero films, particularly Marvel films such as Iron Man. In Iron Man, Nick Fury shows up after the credits to reveal that the film takes place in a much larger universe, hinting at future connected films and character crossovers. The key difference between this kind of reveal, and the reveal in Split, is that in Split we didn’t even know we were in a superhero universe to begin with! Pretty much everyone going into the movie was expecting to see a horror or psychological thriller film, and for the majority of the movie, that’s exactly what you get. It isn’t until the very last scene that you find out that the movie you thought you were watching was actually….. well, not the movie you were watching. It isn’t just that the film takes place in the same world as another film, it’s that the whole genre of the film has changed. You weren’t watching a psychological thriller, you were actually watching an origin story to a super-villain in a wider superhero universe. This completely changes your perspective on the film. When you go back and watch it a second time, this time through the lens of it being a super-villain origin story, suddenly things become very clear. And things that may have seemed odd at first, now make perfect sense. For example: The film takes great lengths to show us what Kevin does outside of when he’s around his captives, mainly, his interactions with his therapist. Normally in a film like this, the story would tend to focus only on the characters being held captive since they are the main characters and the ones the audience identifies with. This would also help to make the viewer feel more claustrophobic and tense. However, because we learn that the film is actually a super-villain origin story, Kevin’s side story with his therapist now feels essential. These scenes serve to show Kevin’s development from a troubled person to full on villain and help us to get inside his head more. Furthermore, Kevin’s transformation into the Beast, and his therapist’s rantings about evolution and people with “gifts” make much more sense when viewed from the point of view of a super-villain film, rather than the much more realistic tone of a psychological thriller. But it is also clear from these scenes that the film made no attempt to hide what it was. It was a super-villain film from the very beginning, albeit one with the tone and suspense of a psychological thriller. It was only our expectations that prevented us from seeing what it truly was until the very end.
We also see, upon second viewing, that the film isn’t just set in the same universe as Unbreakable, but that it is explicitly linked to the events in that movie. We can see this by reexamining the train scene. Keeping in mind that the film is linked to Unbreakable, we can now see that it was Mr. Glass, a genius mastermind, and self proclaimed arch-villain of David Dunn, that caused both the hero in David Dunn, and the villain in Kevin to come into existence. It was Mr. Glass that caused the train accident that set David on the path to realizing his powers. And it was this same train accident that killed Kevin’s father, leading to his development of multiple personalities. This all fits into the comic book mold: One hero, one mastermind villain, and one brute force villain. Not to mention that this is all foreshadowed brilliantly in Unbreakable, with a quote from Elijah’s (Mr. Glass’s) mother:
“But he says there’s always two kinds: There’s the soldier villain, who fights the hero with his hands, and then there’s the real threat, the brilliant and evil arch-enemy, who fights the hero with his mind”
Kevin, is the soldier villain, while Mr. Glass is the brilliant and evil villain. It is also worth noting the alliteration in both Kevin and David’s names. David Dunn, and Kevin Crumb. Often times in comics the heroes and villains will have secret identities with alliteration (Klark Kent, Peter Parker, Lex Luthor etc.) This also leads me to believe that Split isn’t just a super villain origin story, but another hero origin story as well. After all, both Split and Unbreakable feature flashbacks for their main characters. And the main protagonist of Split, Casey, has many flashbacks throughout the film. And what is Casey’s full name? Casey Cook: more alliteration. So as you can see, it isn’t just that the two films take place in the same universe, it’s that the ending of Split transforms the film you just watched into an entirely different movie, one that is carefully interwoven with Unbreakable.
Lastly, to really drive home why I think this ending is so good, just look back on M. Night Shyamalan’s career. This is a guy who is known for having twist endings in almost all of his movies. Going into Split, you know you’re in store for some sort of twist. And so, M. Night is faced with ridiculously high expectations from his fans. Every film he makes seems to be judged on whether or not it can top The Sixth Sense, a film with one of the best twist endings of all time. In my opinion, he does just that with Split, at least so far as the endings go. The ending of the Sixth Sense is another one that changes your entire perspective on the film, and allows you to re-examine the film through a new lens. Split takes this a step further by completely changing the genre of film you were watching. But it also feels extremely bold. M. Night’s twist for Split completely hinges on a film that came out 15 years ago, and only makes sense for those audience members that have seen that film. As a side note, I’m glad that he didn’t choose to make Bruce Willis appear sooner in the film to save the girls, as this would have made even less sense to those people that hadn’t seen Unbreakable. Saving him until the very last seen was a smart move that ensured the audience could still enjoy the film as a psychological thriller or horror movie, if they hadn’t seen Unbreakable.
Speaking of Unbreakable, this was another film that had a pretty genius twist. Similar to Split, people going in to see the movie for the first time were expecting a different genre of movie. The marketing depicted some kind of mystery drama film. The wonderful thing about Unbreakable is that it is those things. But it’s also a superhero origin film. You find this out about mid way through the movie, the big twist at the end being that Mr. Glass is a villain. Though not as well received as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable has nevertheless gathered a cult following and is now considered one of M. Night’s best films. People have been asking for a sequel to Unbreakable for many years. The problem with that notion was the question of how M. Night could recapture the magic of Unbreakable. One of the great things about that movie is the slow reveal that it’s actually a superhero movie. Any sequel would immediately lose that magic. And yet, somehow M. Night Shyamalan managed to do that with Split. He made a sequel to Unbreakable right under everyone’s noses and managed to pull the same trick, this time even better.
Spit has one of the best endings I have ever seen. It enhances the film, builds upon an established universe, changes your entire perspective, and manages to top the expectations set by an M. Night Shyamalan film. I was guessing what the twist would be right up until the last scene, and I never saw it coming. Bring on Unbreakable 2 M. Night. I’m ready.