(As in the second part of my review on M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split,” this post will contain spoilers in regards to the ending of the film. If you want a spoiler-free review, as well as the first part of this series, you can find it here, and if you haven’t read the second part, “The Rules We Make,” click here.)
Shyamalan’s devotion to rules and indicators (another term to use might be signifiers) is shown in “Unbreakable” to a severe degree. Even the characters dress in color codes. Dunn wears green, while Price dresses in mainly purple. These help to distinguish significant characters, just as the color red in “The Sixth Sense” signifies the presence of the dead.
Now, we return to “Split,” a film which begins with a stretched reality and continually tests the audience’s faith as it gets more and more unrealistic. Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig are revealed to be an unholy Trinity of sorts, suppressing Kevin’s other personalities and seeking to bring forth a 24th personality, “the Beast.” Barry has forbidden them from surfacing, due to their zealot-like convictions. By the end of the film, they have brought forth the new being in Kevin’s body: an insanely strong creature with black veins who can crawl on walls, is nearly invulnerable to pain as well as point-blank gunshots, and believes that pain makes us stronger.
I confess, the ending of “Split” had me completely lost. Whereas this had once been a fascinating study of a man psychologically broken, it now became a cheap monster movie, with impossible feats and outcomes. “Split” had come to the point of no return – the point where the audience must be on board with what is happening, lest their disbelief break the illusion of the film. What I didn’t realize was that Shyamalan was still making a promise to me, perhaps the most important of all: that questions will be answered, and that rules were still being made.
What rules were established by the film earlier? Most are dealt with by Betty Buckley’s character, Dr. Fletcher, who serves as an expository source at the middle of the film. Kevin’s personalities all sit in chairs around a room, and can “take the light” at any time Barry (the fashion designer and most ‘normal’ of the bunch) chooses. However, Hedwig can take the light at any time he wants. He describes this as his ‘power.’ We learn that people with disassociative identity disorder can change their body chemistry and physiology – this is shown to us later when a personality reveals that she has diabetes and the others don’t. But to such an extent as the Beast? Fletcher’s conversation with a colleague shows that many in the field doubt it. “As though they have powers,” he says.
We think he’s speaking in hyperbole. He’s not.
After the Beast escapes, we see that his nigh-invulnerability is shared by the dominant personalities – that they are able to communicate while the Beast still has control. Switching to a diner, we see the local news reporting that the creature has been nicknamed “the Horde” by the police. One person remarks that another criminal was given a nickname, years ago – a man in a wheelchair.
“Mr. Glass,” a voice says. David Dunn, world-weary and older, looks up from his meal at the diner. “Split” takes place in the world of “Unbreakable,” and this is the delivery of the promise.
Just as “Sherlock” dwells on the reveal of answers in a logical fashion, so “Split” establishes a world where people cannot do anything beyond the ordinary. However, it reveals that, like Dennis masquerading as Barry to Dr. Fletcher, our perception has been too quickly assumed. The powers of the Beast are not unrealistic, because the film completes the promise by stating that this is a world where powers do exist. The rules are not broken, merely shifted to allocate for this change. Like I previously stated, it’s less of a twist than a change in how we perceive the world.
The other personalities do not have powers; the Beast does. His powers, vague and primitive, greatly resemble the simple gifts bestowed upon David Dunn. The body chemistry/physiology information we were given by Fletcher is now stretched to its maximum potential, resulting in something literally beyond human. Earlier, it is said that Kevin’s father left on a train, leaving him with his psychotic mother, and Patricia brings flowers to train tracks before transforming into the Beast. David Dunn discovered his powers in a horrifying train crash that left him the sole survivor. While it’s never spelled out, Shyamalan is clearly stating that the train crash not only created a superhero, but a monster for him to fight.
The opposite of something unbreakable is something split.
Monsters have always lurked in the shadows, waiting to bite. Shyalaman’s heroine, Casey, bravely survives by the skin of her teeth. Yet, when she escapes the Beast’s clutches, she trades one monster for another – her sexually abusive guardian. This time, however, she has already pulled the trigger on one monster, and come out stronger because of it. When Casey is told by an officer that her uncle is there to pick her up, she fixes an unblinking stare at the policewoman. We know that something is going to change, but don’t need to be told it. Casey has gone through hell, and has come out the other end a resolute, stronger person because of it. She has become unbreakable. And we know that a hero exists who will stop this ultimate evil, because that’s what David Dunn was born to do.
The promises we make need to be kept, in life and in stories. Laws exist to keep us safe and to keep order. In film, they exist to protect us from the reality of the illusion. Establishing these rules is important, but just as important is keeping the promise to an audience that your solutions will obey the rules. Otherwise, the story will split apart.