For his second film, Brett naturally decided to show M. Night Shyamalan‘s 2016 offering Split.  The reason I say “naturally” is that the reveal (people keep calling it a twist but I feel that’s not the right word) on the film is that it is in fact the stealth second installment of a trilogy – a trilogy that completes the story of last time’s film Unbreakable.  At the same time, it does a decent job of standing on its own as a film – you don’t have to have seen Unbreakable to get the whole movie, outside of the in-credits scene and a few clues strung about here or there.

If you sit and wait for your assailant to drug you, turn to page 36.  If you burst from the car running for your life, turn to page Not This Movie

The interesting thing about Split to me, as I look back on it, is how simple the plot is, and how little the sequence of the events of the film matters.  Split is ultimately a prisoner movie (at least to start – it turns into so much more) and so we open with a remarkably clean-cut guy drugging and kidnapping three teenage girls and whisking them off to a basement dungeon somewhere. Outside of the girls’ various failed attempts to escape nearly the whole time of the film is spent slowly revealing three things:  What is Casey’s backstory?  Where are they?  And what the heck is up with their captor?

We can probably blow through the first two of those three pretty quickly.  Casey, who is not a particular friend of the other two captives (nor does she have any particular friends at all), has had her life shaped by two people – her mentor father, who took her out on hunting trips when she was young, and her sexually-abusive uncle, with whom she was forced to live after her father’s untimely death.  So when Casey urges patience and caution in the face of the other two girls’ precipitous attempts to escape, it’s certainly the hunter in her – she’s carefully evaluating the predator/prey situation and by understanding it she can understand when to freeze, when to fawn, when to flee, and when to fight.

In which Philip Zimbardo loses federal funding yet again

The question of where the girls are is one that is never explicitly asked in the movie.  Obviously one’s initial guess is that they’ve been confined in the basement of a house, and since Shyamalan does a very careful job of not giving us a good look at any of the comings and goings of our captor, we have little reason to believe – or suspect – otherwise.  Of course, as the film develops and the girls attempt to escape, the scope of their prison seems to become larger.  Long corridors?  Gym-style lockers?  This is no single-family home.  Eventually we learn that it is in fact part of the underground complex of the Philadelphia Zoo.  Naturally, their captor works there.

It’s just a bear to find a blouse that fits my trapezii

But who is their captor?  It doesn’t take the girls too terribly long to realize that he is not your average sociopathic kidnapper – he’s your average sociopathic kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder (DID), and he currently manifests 23 distinct personalities, which are known as the Horde.  And worse than that, there’s a war going on between the identities.  The film has been hailed as a tour de force in terms of James McAvoy’s acting, and it’s pretty fair as he does a great job, but outside of a few snippets (mostly as part of a video diary), we really see almost nothing of 16 of these 23 personalities.

There appear to be three factions, as it were, to the personalities.  What we could call the Null Faction is Kevin Wendell Crumb.  Kevin is the original personality, before his DID set in.  However, Kevin has been almost totally suppressed by the other personalities and can only be coaxed out by saying his full name out loud.  (“Beetlejuice!  Beetlejuice!  Beetlejuice!”)  We actually only see him once towards the end of the film, as he is brought out by Casey, where realizing the situation his DID has gotten him (and his captives) into, he asks Casey to kill him.  Spoiler: She’s not decisive enough to take her opportunity.

Then, there are what we could call the Realist Faction.  There are led by a personality known as Barry, though we also see a bit of an Orwell, and a Jade, and we can gather that the other 16 personalities we really only touch on at best are likely also of this faction.  This faction seems to be more or less benevolent.  However, they are only in control (“in the light”) for short periods of time at best, and if they have a full understanding of what the third faction is up to, they don’t appear to have the ability to do much more than send cryptic email cries for emergency sessions with their psychotherapist.

But then Lucy pulled back the football!

The third faction is what I would call the Mythologist Faction.  There appear to be only three of them – the leader Dennis, Patricia, and a personality manifesting as a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig.  Despite their small numbers, they are getting the lion’s share of time in the light.  It was Dennis who kidnapped the girls, and who is largely in charge of confining them.  Hedwig, as the youngest, is the personality that Casey tries to manipulate in her attempts to escape.

But I don’t call this the Mythologist Faction for no reason.  These personalities believe in the imminent arrival of a 24th personality, the demigod-like Beast, and the kidnapping of the girls has been made explicitly in preparation for his coming.

She’s an analyst AND a therapist

Finally, we have Kevin’s (or, seemingly, Barry’s) psychotherapist Dr. Fletcher, a world-famous DID investigator who has crazy (though evidently scientifically demonstrable) ideas that individuals with DID can have different physiological characteristics within the same body – for instance a lone personality that suffers from diabetes.  (Yeah, that one needs the whole suspension of disbelief thing, because it’s critical to the story.)  She is drawn into the story not merely for her role in Kevin’s life, but more immediately because Barry has been sending out requests to meet her outside of their normal therapy times.  However, when he shows up, Barry tells Fletcher that his emergency requests for a session were just panics in the night and he’s really just fine.  She, of course, feels like there is something off and begins to correctly suspect that she is in fact speaking to Dennis masquerading as Barry.  Still, she has no idea that the Mythologist Faction, whom she has tried to convince previously that their idea of The Beast is merely fantasy, has gone to the lengths of kidnapping three girls.

Ultimately, following a series of urgent messages from Barry she goes unannounced to visit him at the zoo.

This film is the first solo supervillain origin story and the first time anybody ever developed DVT in the forehead

Unfortunately, by this time the Beast, who is superhero levels of strong and invincible, has in fact emerged.  When Fletcher discovers the kidnappings, the Beast kills her, before setting about feasting on the “impure” and “untouched” flesh of Casey’s two companions.  And he chases down and corners Casey as well, but her previous experiences with sexual abuse (and, evidently, a cutting habit) mark her as “pure”, and he leaves her.  Casey is finally rescued by police, who are in the process of potentially releasing her to her uncle while still on the loose a new supervillain has been unleashed on Philadelphia.  The end.

The last time I was in a diner I almost got shot by myself

Oh, wait.  Then there’s the credits scene that ties us into the Unbreakable universe.  Now, the end.

After being pleasantly surprised with my re-watching of Unbreakable, and with the pre-spoilered knowledge that Split was a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, I had reasonably high expectations for the movie, and for once, I wasn’t disappointed.  In general I thought the movie was well-paced for a prisoner movie, and on top of that we have the multiple personalities theme (and McAvoy’s quite good acting), and the fact that the whole film turns out to be a supervillain origin story – there’s a lot going on here for a generic prisoner movie.  Shyamalan does a great job of exposition, and that’s important seeing as that’s the bulk of the film.  None of it seems forced, yet the story brings the viewer along, revealing point after point until a full view of the whole is reached.  I would have liked to do without the “different DID personalities can have different physiologies” bit, but then again, without that we don’t have a supervillain.  But, in the end, even though I knew the basic plot outline going in I really feel like a viewer watching the film blind would be able to swallow the whole scope of the story as it expands, because the storytelling is right on point.

In addition, since Split is set in the same universe as Unbreakable, and since he is going to reveal that at the end, Shyamalan leaves around a few nice clues for the perceptive viewer (which I saw probably only because I knew they were coming).  There are several clues left about that the film is set in Philadelphia – sports stickers and the like – and of course the reference to Kevin’s father leaving on a train and not coming back ties him directly to the Mr.-Glass-engineered tragedy that revealed David Dunn.  Kevin at one point goes to lay a bouquet of flowers at the train station, and the final emergence of the Beast personality even occurs on the train itself.  Nice touches.