There’s a lot of really vicious talk about the last act of this one. Many people have serious issues with the structure beyond even the first half hour, let alone this wild climax that has pushed away so many and baffled so many others. I admit that it has some problems and believe me, I know it needed some work, but bear with me on this. Those of you that hate it truly do have valid opinions and I don’t want to look down on you for them or negate you, I just want to talk about this film.
I love it. It took me hours to digest, but when the fog lifted I loved it.
When M. Night Shyamalan released Split the world opened its arms and re-accepted him back into the pantheon of acceptable auteurs working in Hollywood. His particular ouvre was not welcome for a decade, having spent his good will on the egotistical project Lady in the Water and followed it with the failures of After Earth and The Last Airbender, where he lent his talents as a gun for hire. His further effort to express himself, The Happening, has become a decently-regarded B-movie among the fans but it was unfortunately made with such sincerity that he received only scorn. Back in 2015 he released a small, self-financed film with Blumhouse Productions that featured an elderly couple terrorizing children, and it wound up being a mild hit with audiences (myself included). You can follow the timeline from here.
What Split did right was allow for smaller, character-driven storytelling that surrounded James McAvoy’s performance as The Horde, a man with so many distinct personalities that it should be obnoxious to watch and yet it’s a blast. Both the actor and the director are fully engrossed in this smaller model of an idea, ditching the graphics and budgets for the idea going all-in can make all the difference to the final product. Shyamalan went in with his finances and McAvoy went into the weeds so far that it had to push to the edge of his abilities. The film ended with so much promise, with Bruce-fuckin’-Willis front and center in his Dunn uniform and reminding us of the villain “Mr. Glass.”
So what happened to piss so many people off? Well, could be the fact that all three of our superbeings are unceremoniously murdered in the last few minutes of the film. And when I call it “unceremonious” I’m not joking, it’s quick and vicious and cold. If the audience wasn’t gone before this then most of them were definitely ready at that point, finale be damned. But most went expecting the spectacle we’re used to, the kind of finale that superhero films have conditioned us to, and when it was instead put into a parking lot and then thrown off the standard rails in favor of a more interesting crash people got mad about it. I understand that, this kind of twist is less thrilling and instead more fascinating, and I can’t tell people enough that I understand their frustration with it. I, however, found it an incredible turn that I could never have expected.
For those that don’t care to see it let’s go into specifics so you can hear how this goes down. It begins, as all great turns do, with a final reveal.
David’s son Joseph Dunn, played by Spencer Treat Clark, is basically playing The Oracle from DC Comics here, studying and researching for his father to aid him in his vigilantism. What he discovers, shortly after it is discovered and hidden by Mr. Glass, is that the same train wreck that brought David Dunn to the villain’s attention also killed The Horde’s father. This abandoned child grew up abused by his mother, fracturing his mind into several personalities and eventually unleashing the vicious “Beast” that protects the body from all forms of harm. At this his anger turns from combating David Dunn to destroying Mr. Glass, shattering his shoulder and then smacking him in the chest, which leads to the fragile man’s death.
But wait kids, there’s more! After a lengthy battle between The Horde and Dunn (all of which looks more like two brutally strong men struggling with each other than an actual, modern, choreographed fight) a large water tank is destroyed. Casey Cooke, reprised in the role by Anya Taylor-Joy, uses this opportunity to draw the original personality out of The Horde – Kevin Wendell Crumb. The sniper uses this opportunity to shoot a vulnerable personality, as The Beast cannot be harmed by bullets, and kill them in maybe the only true heart-wrenching scene in the film. Casey holds him while he dies, giving him the physical touch and emotional connection that he had always wanted and allowing all 24 personalities to sink into death. They give Kevin one last honor for creating them and being with them, letting him be with Casey for his last moments. It’s a sweet scene, and we’re still not in the crazy part yet.
Dunn is dragged away to a puddle by an unnamed officer and drowned. No pageantry, nothing special about it, he is just shoved into a pool of his greatest weakness and murdered as his son watches. Dr. Ellie Staple, played by Sarah Paulson, gives him the courtesy of explaining why he’s being killed. Turns out she’s a member of a secret organization that tracks the existence of superhumans and either psychologically convinces them that they’re delusional, rendering them silent and harmless, or kill them before the world realizes they truly do exist. She wants to maintain the status quo, the very basic three-leafed-clover mark of her cabal stating that they’re normal and that’s all they want in the world. After telling Dunn that she would have let him live if not for The Horde drawing him back into conflict, she allows him to be silenced forever.
You can see why this pissed a lot of people off, right?
David Dunn and Mr. Glass are sacred characters to many people, to those that love M. Night Shyamalan as well as those who respected Unbreakable as an attempt to make a grounded film about comic books. While the ending of Mr. Glass was not only fitting but well-executed, the sheer audacity of killing David Dunn like that really did not sit well with some people. This sequel was 19 years in the making and so many were exhausted by the middle act, the pure academic discussion of comic books. To have their story end this way is untraditional, frustrating, and feels sloppy. It was very sloppy, but sometimes an idea is better than perfection. The entire philosophy of The Beast is that we are what we believe we are, that extraordinary gifts and people do exist. Unlike the last time Shyamalan drew attention to this, when he became a man trying to change the world through his stories, what he’s created here opens everyone up to the potential for greatness. So many don’t know how special they are and there will always be people that try to hold them back, but embracing what makes you wonderful is key. Even if it costs everything, being your full potential is critical to Shyamalan and it’s critical to his audience. The film spends a lot of time questioning why we’re obsessed with those that are larger than life, those with power beyond understanding, and it might just be because we are also bigger than we know. We might also be part of those holding others back, keeping them from reaching the highest peaks, and that might be the path for some.
Shyamalan has gone full Brad Bird this time, revealing to the world his belief that some are special and some just aren’t. This idea is incredibly Randian at its core, ignoring our modern belief that we are all, in some way, worthwhile. Instead we are given a vision of what might be perceived as our betters, diving into the territory of the absurd to state that some people are just meant for greatness and that they need to be allowed to thrive.
I love this film for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is that it’s just respectable. The whole film is brash, bold in its ideas that are awkwardly delivered and yet fully realized. What was promised was an easier film, something that gave into our expectations in a post Iron Man/The Dark Knight world. What was given is stronger for its desire to toss all of that away, and it might not be the superhero showdown we wanted but it’s for sure the one we deserve. We have elevated this genre to a point where it can’t surprise us anymore, instead just delivering an escape. Escape can be healthy sometimes, but we cannot forget to live as well. Life can be candy but we also need true joy and suffering. Shyamalan understands this in a way that few seem to. He’s delivered a near-masterpiece. Hate it if you have to, but understand that it will be respected.