This article contains major Split ending spoilers. Don’t read until you’ve seen the movie.
As sure as the sun will rise and America’s new commander-in-chief will tweet, inevitably an M. Night Shyamalan movie will have an ending that twists, bends, and contorts its narrative into unexpected shapes—often while dividing audiences in the process. Shyamalan returned to form with 2015’s The Visit, but in spite of Split being even more straightforward in its narrative than its direct predecessor, its multiple third act developments, complete with one doozy of a ‘post-credit’ scene, is sure to leave plenty of folks scratching their heads.
Luckily, we’re here to put it in perspective and explain just why Bruce Willis is sitting in that diner at the close of Split (and what Shyamalan says it means for the future). But first, let us take a step back and explain how we got to that point by addressing the rhinoceros-skinned beast in the room: how did James McAvoy’s Kevin Wendell start climbing walls?
Despite what some internet confusion and rumors have already suggested, Kevin’s ability to withstand a knife attack to his skin, or later a shotgun blast, is not necessarily supernatural, even if it is obviously impossible. Rather, Shyamalan is extrapolating real research into dissociative identity disorder (DID) for his own pulpy, exploitative pseudoscience, like all the best (and worst) science fiction writers.
As Dr. Karen Fletcher (wonderfully played by Betty Buckley) repeatedly stresses, there is evidence that individuals with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry. This is based on recent studies in the last 20 years that indicate individuals diagnosed with DID have shown physiologic differences between their ‘alters’ (personalities), including dominant handedness, response to the same medication, and allergic sensitivities. Further, alters have demonstrably shown differences in visual parameters, including corneal curvature and pupil size.
Now, does this mean that an individual who lives with DID could will themselves into having the power set of Spider-Man? No, but hence the aforementioned pseudoscience, which is the refuge of many creators in the genre, going back to its progenitor, Mary Shelley and her obsession with medieval and renaissance alchemy in Frankenstein.
So the alter Dennis is convinced that the elusive 24th personality, the Beast, has skin as hard as a rhino’s and fingers strong enough to dig into stone, allowing it to climb walls. And apparently it did, hence the Beast being able to dismiss the shotgun shells that Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) fires at him in what at first appears to be a traditional thriller showdown between a proverbial monster and his final girl prey.
However, upon Casey’s shirt being ripped off in their final struggle, it is revealed that she has scars on her stomach—scars caused by self-inflicted harm and cutting. As it’s been confirmed earlier in the picture, Casey was abused repeatedly over the years by her uncle. This is first discovered during one of several intensely disturbing flashbacks to Casey’s childhood. After being beckoned to take off her clothes on a hunting trip, the film cuts away from the unimaginable evil to some time later when Casey attempts to shoot and kill her uncle. Tragically, she is unable to pull the trigger and all too realistically says nothing to her father about the abuse… which only continues for the rest of her adolescence after her father dies of a heart attack and she is forced to live with her abuser.
Undoubtedly, Shyamalan broaching such heinous and heartbreaking subjects will be challenged and critiqued for weeks to come. Intentionally, the filmmaker is working from the analytical research that suggests DID is sometimes borne as a form of neurological protection or relief from the neurotoxic effects of traumatic stress. In other words, because Kevin Wendell was abused by his mother, he’d empathize with Casey’s signs of similar abuse.
Still, there is an obvious argument to be made that this is exploiting real-life traumas for genre thrills. And while I believe the film is open to that reading, I would argue that McAvoy and Taylor-Joy are both so good in their roles—with the Scottish actor being exceptionally brilliant in a scenery-chewing tour de force—that they ground the ugliness with some semblance of truth. Also appropriate to the material, there is a steely authenticity to the way Taylor-Joy underplays her often mute heroine.
In context, Casey’s defeated reaction to Dennis breaking into her car, and later her disconnect with the other girls upon waking up inside Kevin’s dungeon, makes more sense. And in the present of the ending, Dennis/the Beast’s thinking is crystallized because they chose the other two girls to be food; they were ‘impure’ due to the fact that they never ‘suffered’ in life. Their untroubled childhoods and happiness were why he stalked and ultimately killed them. Seeing that Casey has her own psychological demons is enough to spare her.
There is a bit of ambiguity as to what happens to Casey after her horrific ordeal. She is told by a police officer that her uncle has arrived to pick her up, but Casey does not leave the squad car. While this is more open to interpretation, the intent of the scene is clearly that Casey has stopped being passive in her victimization. Whereas earlier she allowed a classmate’s father to gently shepherd her into his driving her—with no more resistance than she had when watching Dennis knock out the two girls in the backseat and then come for her—she is now done with letting herself get wordlessly pushed into one prison after another. She couldn’t pull the trigger on her uncle as a child, but as a young woman she’ll fire the shotgun at the Beast. Likewise, she refuses to be escorted back to hell with her uncle. The authority figure’s attention, like our own, is instantly drawn to the fire in Casey’s eyes.
The implication is that Casey will confirm the already clouding suspicion about something being rotten in the state of her proverbial Denmark, and with an evil, lecherous uncle no less.
Is Split an Unbreakable Sequel?
As for the actual final scene: it is a direct reference to Unbreakable, of course. As Willis’ David Dunn sits at a counter, many remark at the television screen, wherein reporters breathlessly espouse that Kevin Wendell is now to be known as ‘the Horde.’ This is for all intents and purposes a comic book-styled revelation, just like the end of Unbreakable. Someone at the counter even makes the suggestion by saying this is like that crazy guy in a wheelchair who was arrested about 15 years ago.
If you don’t recall or have never seen Unbreakable, that film ends with Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, a comic book enthusiast suffering from Type I osteogenesis imperfecta, which renders him painfully fragile, revealing that he caused the train crash that opened the movie (and that same crash seems to have some kind of ties to Kevin’s past, as well, based on the flowers he leaves on an Amtrak platform). In fact, he’s caused three acts of terrorism that killed hundreds of people simply so he could find a man who was the opposite of him, his nemesis who completes him like all the best frenemies of comic books. And right before Willis’ heroic David leads the authorities to arrest Price, he muses that as a child, they called him Mr. Glass. Presumably that will be his supervillain name.
Similarly, Kevin’s alters Dennis and Hedwig reveal in Split that they were made fun of by children, and then other alters within their body, by being nicknamed ‘Horde.’ The phrase has taken off, and as the television says, Horde is the new villain in town that David Dunn will have to stop, just like Mr. Glass all those years ago.
Admittedly, this is an entire riff on the now omnipresent superhero movie craze that Shyamalan’s Unbreakable predated by some years in 2000. In essence, this is his own version of a Marvel Studios stinger. Does that mean we’ll finally get an Unbreakable 2 as a consequence? Well, that remains to be seen. This might just be a nice wink by Shyamalan to his fans who have been clamoring for his long teased sequel for over 15 years now. Or, like Marvel, it might be a promise for stories to come. Time will tell on that one.
“This was originally in the Unbreakable script, this character,” M. Night Shyamalan told Den of Geek UK. “So most of what you saw was written 15, 16 years ago. I slid it out, always intending to make it another movie. My intention is to make a final movie for these two movies, so their stories finish […] It will be a sequel to Unbreakable, but also a sequel to Split.”
At long last a journey on Eastrail 177 is going to end.