Split: The Rules We Make

(This is a continuation of my review/discussion of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” and the idea of promises in storytelling – with particular regard to his films. This review will contain spoilers for some of Shyamalan’s major theatrical releases, in order to better understand his technique and apply it to writing.)

Now you’ve heard my review of “Split.” I assume that you’ve seen the movie already, and are either completely confused by the ending or have really gotten it. If you’re confused, I understand. Don’t worry.

Earlier in my review, I talked about promises that a storyteller makes to his audience. There are some guidelines to the “promise” that help to make its resolution as satisfying as possible:

  1. The solution to the promise should coincide with an emotional climax/resolution for the protagonist/antihero/main character.
  2. The resolution to the promise must work within the rules set by the story.
  3. The audience, ideally, should not figure out the solution to the promise until it occurs.

These are some pretty heavy topics, so I’ll explain using some notes from previous Shyamalan films, including the rules he sets. Shyamalan is a big fan of rules – he even includes them on several posters of his.

The Sixth Sense

Again, spoilers. Here, the rules are laid out to us pretty clearly by Cole (Haley Joel Osment to Malcolm (Bruce Willis), as well as indicators Shyamalan places around him. We know initially that Cole can be hurt by these ghosts – that they can interact with the physical realm in some respects. We see this at first because of the marks on Cole, and because the ghost of his grandmother moves her old bumblebee pendant around.

We also see that ghosts only remain when they have something to accomplish – some unfinished business or trauma they must confront. Shyamalan gives this to us through Cole’s revelation with Malcolm. Cole also reveals that ghosts don’t know they’re dead. They walk around like normal people.

Shyamalan reveals another way to tell that the dead are present: through the indicator of cold. Cole’s breath is visible whenever ghosts are around. These are most, if not all, of the rules.

Now, the promise: that Cole will find a happy ending, as will Malcolm. Cole finds it through a reveal, involving death, to his mother. He tells her the truth at last, through proof from his dead grandmother. Malcolm finds it in the ultimate delivery of the promise: Shyamalan reveals that Malcolm has been dead all along, and that his aiding Cole is really part of his own healing. All of the rules from before apply here and help to deliver on their ‘truth’ in the world of the film. Because the rules have been so well established, we know that by rewatching the film, everything will hold up, and it does. The promise has been kept.

Unbreakable

Told you there were going to be spoilers. In “Unbreakable,” M. Night again uses a central character – Elijah Price(Samuel L. Jackson) – and indicators to explain the rules of the universe.

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is the sole survivor of a train crash, and Price approaches him with the belief that comic book heroes were inspired by people with incredible gifts. He believes Dunn possesses such gifts. Price poses rules: David cannot have been sick or hurt before. The promise, of course, is that David will become a hero – that Mr. Glass will be proven right in some way. The rules are treated as a mystery to be solved. David has never taken a sick day, and it is revealed that in a car accident, he saved his girlfriend, Audrey, in an astounding feat of strength but faked an injury. He ended his promising football career to marry her. His ‘injury’ was a ruse.

However, a problem arises: he nearly drowned as a child. A new rule, that water is David’s weakness, is established. By the conclusion of the film, we see David confront his first true foe, a home invader. He contends with his fear of water, overcoming it with the aid of those he’s trying to save, and rises up to become the hero they need. The promise is fulfilled, but is made more satisfying when we realize that all this time, Price has been pulling the strings to draw someone like David out into the open. In his search for a superhero, Price has become a supervillain, Mr. Glass, and so our dichotomy of good and evil is firmly established.

Now that we know what Shyamalan’s predisposition toward rules and promises is, we can further explore the intense storytelling at work in “Split,” and how our faith in believing the unbelievable is rewarded by the end of the film.

See you in part 3, “Split: The Point of No Return.”

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