[Note: This post contains major spoilers. It expands on my original review of Split, which appeared at St. Louis Magazine on January 19, 2017. Updated 3/6/17.]
Director M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is the uncommon thriller in which a fair-minded, substantive evaluation of its merits and flaws practically demands engagement with the film’s ending. Split goes a step further than most films with plot twists—including some renowned and notorious examples in Shyamalan’s own filmography—by holding the most fundamental revelation in reserve until the literal final shot. In fact, Split’s concluding swerve isn’t really a plot twist at all, but a genre twist. It so sharply re-contextualizes the film that to avoid any mention of it, or treat it as some kind of frivolous Easter egg, is to severely restrict fruitful discourse about the film.
Accordingly, rather than talking elliptically and therefore unproductively about Split, this post assumes that the reader is aware of the film’s most talked-about reveal: David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the indestructible hero of Shyamalan’s fourth feature, Unbreakable, makes a cameo appearance in Split’s final moments. At the most rudimentary level, this constitutes a realignment of setting. Split doesn’t merely take place in one of the “Weird Pennsylvania” locations that are pervasive in Shyamalan’s work, but in a particular one that the viewer has encountered before. To wit: Split’s Philadelphia is also Unbreakable’s Philadelphia. (This appears to be novel in the director’s oeuvre; unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, there’s been little suggestion of a connected, multi-film universe in Shyamalan's work until now.) Not incidentally, this fact also changes the framework for the film’s genre components. Despite appearances, Split is not just a horror story, but also a superhero story—or more accurately, a supervillain story. While Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a.k.a. Mr. Glass, might have been David Dunn’s sinister reflection in Unbreakable, Split is the evil doppelgänger to Unbreakable itself.
In the moment, David’s appearance might seem like a self-reflexive gag, or, more charitably, a delightful curve ball that acknowledges the esteem in which Unbreakable is held among many cinephiles. (Indeed, it is unequivocally Shyamalan’s best feature—not quite a masterpiece, but still a splendid work of cinema and perhaps the best superhero film ever made, full stop.) Upon further deliberation, however, it’s remarkable the extent to which this seemingly throwaway callback actually enhances Split, both by casting its apparent weaknesses in a more agreeable light and by enriching its pulpy, titillating tone with a mythic resonance.
Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with a film that is “merely” a pulpy, titillating horror thriller, particularly when it’s executed with Split’s nasty zeal and striking formal artistry. Even the film’s prologue—in which adolescent girls Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are abducted by Kevin Crumb’s (James McAvoy) tightly-wound, obsessive persona Dennis—is a marvel of resourceful storytelling and eye-catching compositions. Shyamalan turns a somewhat musty crime thriller scenario into a quivering sequence of oblique violence and icy helplessness. (One of this scene’s wonderful details is a dropped stack of vermilion leftover containers, which fills the role of a telltale blood spatter.)
Indeed, the prelude neatly illustrates three essential reasons that Split works so marvelously as a crackerjack B-movie. First is its arresting aesthetic robustness. Notwithstanding his reputation in the popular consciousness for plot twists, the feature that most clearly distinguishes Shyamalan’s earlier films is their visual beauty and formal aplomb—particularly in the Unbreakable / Signs / The Village triptych. (Such verve is virtually absent in his recent neo-Grimm found footage thriller The Visit, but that’s the nature of the subgenre, not to mention largely inconsequential to the film’s virtues.) Granted, Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioukakis (who lensed the masterful It Follows) have a lot more to work with after the film’s action moves into Kevin’s labyrinthine lair. However, the banal abduction locale—a suburban restaurant parking lot in broad daylight—is given a slathering of prickly menace through stimulating compositions and judicious use of shallow focus, slow dolly, and hard-hitting ruptures in the 180-degree rule.
Relatedly and secondly, the prelude illustrates Shyamalan’s estimable talent (not always evident in his works, unfortunately) for using mise en scène to efficiently convey information about his characters’ personalities and relationships. Split is a particularly strong outing in this respect: By the time Kevin has incapacitated the three girls and the opening credits have commenced, the viewer has learned quite a bit about the film’s protagonist, Casey, solely from the way that Shyamalan positions her, both within the frame and relative to the other characters in space. (Namely, that she’s an anxious, attentive loner who is accepting of her outcast status.)
Finally, the opening exhibits Taylor-Joy’s centrality to the film’s success. While McAvoy is plainly Split’s star, and his performative acrobatics in six-plus discrete roles are an essential component of the film’s appeal as a work of kitschy entertainment, it’s the 20-year-old actress’ presence that gives the film’s character drama a soulful weight. Taylor-Joy is the kind of performer who seems born for cinema. It’s not her voice that lingers—her line readings are mostly unmemorable—but her face. With her enormous, ensnaring brown eyes, she wields an uncommon, delicate expressiveness that can only be captured in close-up and only fully appreciated when projected on a massive screen. Her character’s thoughts are simultaneously unconcealed and faintly inscrutable, a contradiction that marks Casey as a more peculiar and fascinating hero than most teen protagonists, who unfailingly blurt out exactly what they are thinking.
Later, the girls awaken in a locked, makeshift bedroom of wood and drywall, quickly realizing that they’ve stumbled into one of those particularly icky double-length episodes of Law & Order: SVU. Dennis might be a balled-up bundle of neuroses, but he’s also rumbling with unconcealed sexual menace. Whatever their faults, none of the three girls are nitwits; they know how this story ends, even before Kevin’s alters begin muttering about “sacred food” for “the Beast.” They’ve seen what happens in movies where twitchy weirdos take pretty girls captive and lock them in dank rooms. (Casey is more cautious about jumping to conclusions than the other two, but it's only because she wants to identify the exact contours of their captor's state of mind before hashing out an escape plan.) It would go too far to label the girls’ blunt, pessimistic assessment of their situation as outright genre savviness, but both they and Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) seem to possess an understated, fatalistic awareness of what kind of story they’re inhabiting. When Fletcher finally stumbles upon one of Kevin’s victims, she seems horrified, but not taken aback—as though the discovery had confirmed her darkest suspicions.
Particularly in contrast to Casey’s levelheadedness, it’s easy to sneer at Claire and Marcia, who spend most of their captivity alternating between cringing terror and fuming panic. However, the plans that they concoct—bum-rush Kevin as a group when he enters their room; brain him with a heavy object when his back is turned; rip through the thin ceiling to access a heating duct—all have a reasonable shot at success. Their strategies aren’t “wrong,” any more than Casey’s watch-and-wait approach is right. The other two girls are just unlucky, and perhaps a bit too dependent on sanguine assumptions vis-à-vis the ease of escape once their captor is incapacitated. Casey is more reliant on observation, patience, and endurance because this is how she approaches all problems, owing to her father’s formative deer hunting wisdom and the succeeding years of abominable sexual attention from her uncle. (In psychiatric parlance, she plainly displays the hypervigilance that is often associated with posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD].) For Claire and Marcia, Kevin’s multiple identities mark him as unpredictable, adding extra urgency to their escape efforts, but Casey instead discerns an opportunity for manipulation and exploitation that would not be in play were they the prisoners of an “ordinary” serial killer.
Shyamalan walks a fine line in Split with respect to the viewer’s sympathies. Kevin’s history elicits pity—his fractured identity being attributable in part to a briefly-glimpsed childhood of physical abuse straight out of Mommy Dearest—but the film does not beg the viewer’s indulgence with respect to the twisted worldview of his "evil" alters. After all, Kevin’s personalities were not beamed into his head by malevolent aliens. All of his identities originated in his mind and all are “him” in some respect, reflecting differing urges, obsessions, fears, fantasies, and even regurgitated pop culture. Inasmuch as this fragmentation was not his fault, his situation is wretchedly tragic. It is still his mind, however, that gives birth to the Beast. It's his mind that extrudes his blackest desire—to inflict pain rather than suffer it—into a monstrous chimera assembled the characteristics of zoo animals. Recalling Nola Carveth in The Brood, Kevin’s most vicious urges have been uncoupled from his core self, but they remain his urges.
Split is therefore consistent with the best sort of supervillain origin stories, such as X-Men: Magneto Testament, Doctor Octopus: Year One, and Paul Dini’s legendary Batman: The Animated Series episode “Heart of Ice.” Such tales render the villain as an understandable figure, but not in any way forgivable. Most monsters need this connection to recognizably human desires, problems, and weaknesses. The Jokers and Michael Meyerses of the world—the agents of elemental evil, spawned fully formed from the shadows—are terrifying only when they are exceptional. Unbreakable’s Mr. Glass and Split’s Horde establish what might be termed the Shyamalan Rule of Supervillainy: Heroes might be born, the fortunate sons and daughters of genetic roulette, but villains are made. They are ordinary people molded into the extraordinary at the nexus of pain and moral error.
In less capable hands, Split might have turned into little more than a stock captivity-and-escape thriller with a ridiculous, albeit disconcerting, hook. Long before it becomes apparent that the film is a supervillain origin story, however, Shyamalan has already invigorated its high-concept premise—man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) abducts and murders girls—with small, gratifying complications. It’s not merely that one of Kevin’s alters is a violent, psychosexual predator, which would have been meaty enough for a more straightforward film. Split establishes that Kevin’s mental state of affairs is more convoluted, and in some ways more unsettling. The Dennis and Miss Patricia alters have actually staged a psychological coup, with the assistance of the naïve but exceptional Hedwig. (This 9-year-old identity is ironically the only alter that can seize control of Kevin’s body by force, shoving other personalities out of the way.) Dennis even manages to pull off a credible impression of a more benign alter, Barry, in order to deceive Dr. Fletcher. The other alters manage to reassert control only for the stray moments it takes to dash off S.O.S. emails—"WE NEED YOUR HELP”—to their psychiatrist. (Insufficient time, it would seem, to release the trio of captives imprisoned down the hall.) Fortunately, Dr. Fletcher has been treating Kevin long enough to quickly discern that something is off about “Barry,” and that this signals that Something Bad has happened.
The notion that a DID patient’s alters could engage in an unseen power struggle for control of the body is undeniably creepy, but hardly novel. Shyamalan’s take on the premise can be regarded merely an elaboration on the grand-daddy of multiple personality horror stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The stark simplicity of the dualism in Stevenson’s tale, however, is complicated in Split not only by the proliferation of alters, but by the addition of factionalism. Dennis and Miss Patricia have established a sacrificial cult of sorts to glorify the Beast that is slouching towards the world. In other words, the society of Kevin's mind has its own fringe religion. In contrast to the brutish, debauched Mr. Hyde, Dennis—the alter most given to violent sexual impulse—actually has to suppress his desires so that he and Miss Patricia can make the proper arrangements for the Beast’s arrival. (“He’s not allowed to touch you,” Miss Patricia reassures the girls, in a way that is not reassuring at all.) Glorification of the Beast demands discipline and self-denial, not to mention ruthlessness: Dennis and Miss Patricia have effectively thrown their 20 non-believing fellow alters into a mental dungeon while they make their ritual preparations.
One of Shyamalan’s less recognized traits as a screenwriter is his penchant for evocative descriptions and eerie turns of phrase, the sort of lines that elicit chills for lizard-brain reasons that are difficult to articulate. It Split this can particularly be observed in the language of the Beast’s mythology. “Sacred food” is unnerving as hell, conjuring Old Testament stories—the disparate offerings of Cain and Abel, or the manna of the Israelites’ desert wanderings—as well as ghastly fireside tales about cannibalism and lycanthropy. (One also thinks of Peloquin in Clive Barker’s Night Breed, proclaiming gutturally, “You’re Natural. And that means… you’re meat for the beast.”) The conception of Kevin’s DID as a circle of chairs and a single spotlight paints a vivid picture as well, and another filmmaker might have seized upon the opportunity to serve up a half-baked visualization of this metaphor, complete with “women” and “child” McAvoys. This is not Fight Club or Being John Malkovich, however, and Shyamalan astutely keeps the viewer grounded in the real world, partly so that Split doesn’t risk mutating into a Kevin Crumb character study, and partly to keep the focus on Casey’s plight. The eerie mental picture that “sitting in the light” arouses is suitably suggestive all on its own.
(Shyamalan is a frustratingly contradictory study in the “show, don’t tell” adage. One of the weakest scenes in Unbreakable involves an older employee at a school relating an anecdote about David Dunn’s childhood. It’s intended as a nudge to David’s memory regarding a vital plot point—namely, that his weakness is drowning—but instead comes off as a ponderous watch-checking moment, a misspent opportunity for an impressionistic flashback in a film that’s practically drunk on giddy visuals. Conversely, some of the creepiest sequences in the aesthetically colorless The Visit are the hair-raising, rambling stories about hauntings and aliens recounted by the grandparents. These miniature ghost stories have nothing to do with the film’s plot but nonetheless suffuse it with a bloodcurdling atmosphere of the weird.)
The Beast himself is a redolent phantom presence for much of the film, the invocation of his moniker prompting a shudder, if only because one knows that the fiend must appear before the credits roll. The description recounted by Dr. Fletcher paints a picture of a fearsome ape-man: enormous, strong, agile, shaggy, thick-skinned. The space he occupies is mental, not physical, but the verbiage used by the Horde to describe him nonetheless suggests motion and proximity. “He’s on the move,” Hedwig gleefully reports, and one is put in mind of a juggernaut, rolling mercilessly forward and crushing all its path. (Indeed, no less a beast than the pitiless, implacable Mr. Hyde was compared to the colossal sacred wagons of Jagganath Temple—the juggernauts—in Stevenson’s novel.) However, Hedwig’s crayon drawings of the Beast are more disquieting than any verbal description could hope to be, in part because their crudity distills the creature down to his predatory essence. The Beast is large, fearsome, and hungry. Does the rest matter? (Whether by dint of budget constraints or artistic choice, the viewer is thankfully spared from the sight of a CGI McAvoy Sasquatch. The Beast’s actual appearance is relatively non-monstrous: taller and more muscular that Kevin’s other alters, with densely veined, faintly greenish-bronze skin. This subdued design is unexpected at first, but it’s far more consistent with Unbreakable’s quasi-realist approach than any hulking, chintzy Underworld werewolf.)
Shyamalan’s canny approach to Split’s inherent silliness is to allow it to run wild, but only within the narrow confines established by the film’s sinister mood and broadly realistic setting. Split isn’t simply a throwback, but a kind of cinematic time travel or mind-swapping experiment. Shyamalan has transported a 1980s basic cable psychological thriller and an Atomic Age monster movie—the sort of daft, un-scientific 88-minute potboilers that Roger Corman and Burt I. Gordon tackled with glorious earnestness—into a survival horror picture. It’s kind of amazing to behold, but not always successful. McAvoy’s performance mostly remains on the right side of the line between delicious camp and outright goofiness, but as the Beast he delivers some dumb lines with such ludicrously over-the-top bellowing that the only possible reaction is a guffaw. The fantasy psychobabble espoused by Dr. Fletcher is also a distraction, particularly when it descends rather embarrassingly into the sort of vacuous abstraction that would make Depak Chopra envious.
Of course, the not-even-wrong absurdity of the film’s psychiatric exposition is mitigated by the discovery that one has, in fact, been watching a comic book film. This revelation doesn’t entirely give Split a pass on its more inane moments, but it does provide an ex post facto context in which the most outrageously purple dialog makes much more sense. (Put this line from Dr. Fletcher on the pages of The Vault of Horror, inside a word balloon edged in electric yellow and punctuated with triple exclamation points, and it abruptly goes from excruciating to lip-smacking: “AN INDIVIDUAL WITH MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES CAN CHANGE THEIR BODY CHEMISTRY WITH THEIR THOUGHTS!!!”) Purely in the name of fairness, Split’s superhero comic birthright argues for indulgence. No one but the most joyless pedant would take The Uncanny X-Men to task, after all, for wildly misrepresenting the elementary facts of human genetics.
More troubling than Split’s kooky premise is its debatably exploitative treatment of mental illness. For all the film’s successes, Shyamalan never takes even a moment to grapple with the potential imprudence of crafting yet another gaudy genre film about DID. It’s not so much that that the director made a DID horror film per se as he fails to at least intra-textually acknowledge that making a DID horror film is kind of tacky. One can certainly appreciate why speculative fiction, going back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has long been so enthralled with the concept of a person manifesting two or more discrete identities. It’s a vivid, fertile basis for an exploration of the human mind, a hook that has endured numerous discoveries, refinements, and paradigm shifts in the field of psychology for more than a century.
None of which excuses the somewhat regressive, tiresome dimension to Split’s particular depiction of a person suffering from DID. Of course Kevin Crumb—sorry, Dennis / Patricia / The Beast—is the villain, because the DID patient is always the villain. And of course that villainy manifests as a desire to kidnap adolescent girls, hold them captive, sexually terrorize them, and eventually murder them horrifically. (Split adds cannibalism to the typical TV serial killer playbook: The Beast wants to literally devour the girls while they are alive and screaming.) The problem is not that Split’s story is rife with cliché—the enthusiastic embrace of tropes is practically a requirement in pulp horror—but that those violent, disturbing clichés are attributed to a mental disorder whose nature, causes, symptoms, and even existence are still hotly debated in psychiatric circles. DID is an extremely rare condition that is already disproportionately represented in pop culture, almost always in a specious, demonizing manner. Further muddying the ethical waters is the role that DID hoaxes and malingering played in fanning the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s, a hysteria that ruined livelihoods and devastated lives.
What’s more, DID has a chicken-or-egg problem, as it’s unclear to what extent the disorder might be created (or at least amplified) by specific psychotherapeutic techniques. Split subsumes this controversy deep within its text, providing faint hints that Dr. Fletcher’s indulgence of Kevin’s illness may have unwittingly helped unleash the Beast. (There are also insinuations that the divisions between Kevin’s alters are more fluid than Dr. Fletcher surmises. Miss Patricia’s fury over a crooked sandwich, for example, seems like a reaction more typical of the compulsive Dennis.) This question of DID’s origin echoes the more obvious narrative recursion at the heart of Unbreakable. Elijah proposes that comic books are modern myths, an effort by the collective unconsciousness to make sense of people with extraordinary abilities. However, David would arguably never have acknowledged his nature without Elijah’s influence, and Elijah in turn would never have pushed David to become a superhero if he hadn’t spent a lifetime thinking about comic books. So which is it? Do the heroes inspire the stories, or do the stories inspire the heroes? Or both? Similarly, is the Beast a “natural” reaction to Kevin’s abusive childhood, or an aberrant side effect of Dr. Fletcher’s flawed methods? Would the Beast have even emerged without the intervention of therapy?
Underlying any specific issues related to DID, however, is the larger matter of Split’s glib usage of mental illness for its narrative purposes. Perhaps most conspicuous in this respect is the film’s contention that trauma survivors are somehow stronger, or even “more evolved,” than individuals who have never known truly devastating pain. This isn’t exactly ableism in the usual sense, but one might regard it as a kind of condescending crypto-ableism, comparable to marveling at how nurturing women are or how studious Asian people are. Then there’s the startling positioning of Casey’s self-harming behavior—evidently triggered by a lifetime of sexual abuse that may still be ongoing—as the factor that ultimately saves her from the Beast’s ravenous power. As plot points go, it’s unquestionably audacious, but also somewhat problematic, as the kids say. Shyamalan’s not truly suggesting that adolescent self-harm is, on balance, a good thing, but it’s possible (and a little embarrassing) that even an attentive filmgoer might reach that conclusion.
While Split might be able to broadly flaunt psychological realism thanks to the parameters of genre, its facile, disconcerting treatment of mental disorders as plot devices is not so easily rationalized. The film’s employment of afflictions like BPD, PTSD, OCD, depression, and anxiety—illnesses from which tens of millions of Americans suffer—is at best, a tad cavalier. Moreover, the film is undeniably over-reliant on trauma as a causal factor in mental disorders. It’s one thing to lace a horror film with vacuous, un-scientific drivel, and quite another to explicitly lash that film to a reductive “Abuse = Illness” view that no real-world psychiatrist actually holds. Split doesn’t leave much room for genetics, biochemistry, or nuance in its rush to paint childhood trauma as the Grand Unified Theory of Crazy, which is in a way more reckless than stuffing its story with gobbledygook.
Still, there is a shrewd sensitivity in the way that Split weaves the particulars of living with a mental disorder into its story. For example, Casey’s multi-layered, baggy clothing is contrasted with the thinner, more revealing (and more gendered) attire that Claire and Marcia wear. This has functional consequences during the girls’ captivity, as any dirt on their clothing prompts the compulsive Dennis to demand the soiled garment. Like the losing players in a perverse game of strip poker, Claire and Marcia are soon reduced to standing around self-consciously in their underwear, keenly aware of Dennis’ gaze. Casey, however, keeps peeling off layers. By the film’s climax, she’s finally wearing just a camisole as a top, at which point the self-harm scars on her shoulders and abdomen are plainly visible to the Beast. It’s a fairly ingenious narrative maneuver that 1) reflects the real-world manifestation of self-injurious behavior (patients often conceal their scars), 2) presents a metaphorical echo of Casey’s state of mind (she’s swathed herself in layered defenses), and 3) gives Shyamalan a legitimate justification for keeping a major character trait hidden until the moment it becomes relevant.
There’s a certain off-center allure to the notion of strength in adversity, an idea located at the peculiar intersection of modern self-help positivity and the Puritan glorification of suffering. To its credit, Split presents this as a more nuanced concept than the insipid adage, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” (As the late Christopher Hitchens dryly observed in his cancer memoir, Mortality, what doesn’t kill you usually makes you easier to kill.) Rather, Shyamalan suggests that to view mental illness exclusively through the lens of victimhood is to minimize the fact that living with mental illness constitutes a discrete set of experiences. To have a mental disorder is to be shaped by that experience, and therefore to see the world in a particular way, just as one’s race, ethnicity, gender, class, and language shape one’s worldview. Like Casey, anyone might someday find themselves in an unusual situation where their idiosyncratic life experiences are essential to the bloody business of survival.
To most observers, “survival of the fittest” carries a sour whiff of eugenics when used in reference to the human species, but as any evolutionary biologist would be eager to point out, “fitness” is a neutral, circumstantial concept. A trait that is disadvantageous under Conditions A may provide an edge under Conditions B. Casey’s personal example walks back the social Darwinism of the Beast’s “triumph of the traumatized” delusions, as well as Dr. Fletcher’s simple-minded fantasy that the disordered are somehow responsible for all legends of the supernatural. In truth, the “broken,” as the Beast self-loathingly terms them, aren’t superior or inferior, just different. In some specific circumstances, those differences might provide an advantage. (In this limited respect, Split is oddly progressive, reflecting a bleeding-edge extension of the social and cultural models of mental illness to cover those disruptive disorders, such as PTSD, that even the most pugnacious neurodiversity advocate might be reluctant to embrace.)
Like X-Men’s Magneto, the Beast regards himself as the exemplar of a new ethos of strength—"neuro-atypical supremacy," perhaps?—but he’s just a vainglorious sadist at heart, eager to inflict all the hurt that’s been inflicted on him. Profligate use of phrases like “more evolved” are the red flags of an absolutist bigotry that stands in opposition to Darwinism’s narrow, conditional statements of value. The world is too complex for the contemptuous simplicity of “superior” and “inferior”—although one might make an exception for the miracle of, say, a man who is born unbreakable.