Most of M. Night Shyamalan's movies orbit around the gravity of big plot twists and the surprise that happens when they get revealed. But I accidentally learned about the shocking end of Split months before it came out — and wound up enjoying the movie a lot more as a result.
Getting spoiled about what's going to happen in pop culture entertainment is an occupational hazard of covering movies, comics and games. Sometimes, reporting on a creative work necessitates knowing its intricacies in advance. This time, however, I unintentionally did it to myself. It started last November, after my colleague Germain Lussier had seen Split at last year's Fantastic Fest.
The next day, in our Slack channel, he told us that he was off to interview Shyamalan...
I blurted out "UNBREAKABLE SEQUEL?" — meaning that he needed to ask about a follow-up to one of my favourite superhero movies. But it read differently in the group chat and then a small comedy of errors ensued.
From there, things went into a private channel where Germain cleared up the confusion and told us in secret about the secret connection between Unbreakable and Split — namely that Split takes place in the Unbreakable universe, as proven by Bruce Willis' appearance as David Dunn at the end. I hadn't seen a Shyamalan film since Signs, but that spoiler knowledge made me want to see Split much more than I'd initially wanted. My eagerness to see the director revisit the fiction of Unbreakable got me to a Friday night screening. The removal of the tension freed up my brain to process the movie differently.
I tend to think that good execution should trump any spoilers. If a story is told well enough, then a big twist just heightens the experience. If a twist is disproportionately important to the proceedings, then it's a big sign that something in the architecture is deeply flawed. The nod to Unbreakable only happens at the very end of Split and, for the most part, the movie holds up on its own as a hypnotic fusion of horror thriller and superhero genre cinema. McAvoy's performance — suddenly communicating the presence of a different personality by dramatically changing body language, speech affect and facial expression — is breathtaking.
But knowing that Split was a supervillain origin story in disguise allowed me to take in how it was advancing Unbreakable's deconstructed take on metahuman mythology. Certain expository moments resonate in an entirely different way when you know that they're being used to explain how superpowered people can exist in this reality. And the Unbreakable foreknowledge changed the way I looked at the main character, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), too. Her uncanny calm after being abducted by James McAvoy's Kevin comes across as more than just heightened competence and maturity. Indeed, the flashback sequences showing her learning to hunt deer make it seem like we were getting another superpowered character's origin story.
Split is good on its own merits but feels like it has more weight as an interlocking puzzle piece designed to do some world-building. I'd given up on Shyamalan ages ago but knowing ahead of time that he was going back to the headspace of Unbreakable made me give him another chance. After seeing Split, I don't just want to see his next movie. I actually think Shyamalan may have gotten his mojo back. And it's all thanks to something I wasn't even supposed to know.