Split: M. Night Shyamalan goes crazy and tender

The author is also behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006. There are several articles on each film: The Sixth Sense (1999, here, here and here), Unbreakable (2000, here, here and here), Signs (2002, here, here, here and here), The Village (2004, here, here and here) and Lady in the Water (2006, here and here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview.

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Split is the second instalment of the new leaner, meaner incarnation of M. Night Shyamalan, first unleashed upon the world with the The Visit (2015). This low-budget Shyamalan persona is more bizarre, crazier.

Some early spots in Split may feel a bit clunky and exposition-heavy. There are quite a few highly static dialogue scenes where James McAvoy‘s dissociative identity disorder patient is conversing with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) about his multiple personalities. McAvoy’s performance is so engrossing and detailed, however, that I couldn’t help being fascinated, with extra inspiration from the intellectual chess game-like nature of the discussions. (I still have reservations about the director cameo scene – its flippancy tends to disturb the tonality of the film.)

The rest of Split is thoroughly gripping. No reservations. At times I floated up to the surface, realising consciously that “this is really something”, just to be instantly dragged under again. At some point Split turns into an inferno of unpredictable and astounding situations churning away like mad, accompanied by a growling, droning noise-scape of a nature unheard in any earlier Shyamalan soundtrack. (The euphoric ending is a chapter unto itself, to which I shall return at the end of the article.)

The pleasures of the film range from an absurd, disarmingly childlike dance routine to one of the most believable representations of megalomania in living memory. On repeated viewings, however, Split becomes less grotesque and even more emotionally engaging. The main reason for this is the hypnotic performance of Anya Taylor Joy (from the recent The Vvitch), in Shyamalan’s first film with a female as sole main character. (McAvoy probably has as much screen time, but it is she we identify with.) Her serene intensity and intelligence as Casey, a dark angel of survival, is even more magnificent than McAvoy’s technical fluidity in the role(s) of Kevin.

Shyamalan has not lost his touch with child actors with whom his early films were brimming – Izzie Coffey does an enchanting turn as a 5-year old Casey in a series of flashbacks. With each viewing it also becomes clearer the thematic depth with which McAvoy’s various personas are written. The film provides an emotionally deep understanding of why psychological survival mechanisms arise in people suffering abuse, and even though the film is using many familiar tropes from psychological thrillers, the end result feels highly original.

One also appreciates the meticulousness and craftsmanship of the visual storytelling. The stylised and highly self-aware formal language, including a strong tendency for very long takes, that so marked Shyamalan’s films of his golden age from 1999 to 2004 has disappeared. Due to budgetary restraints, a desire to play it safe(r) to get back on his commercial footing, or simply a new interest in more event-filled plots?

His early films were mood pieces, with a very slow pace and astoundingly little action, and their “luxurious” approach would probably not have suited his faster-paced and more action-packed last two films. The more immersive and POV-shot-oriented traditional method works efficiently here, but one suspects that these films might turn out to be less rich than the earlier ones. After all, a whole layer of potential meaning has evaporated, and one fondly remembers the “good old days” when unusual visual solutions could bring an endlessly fascinating feeling of enigma to each scene.

But within the new reality of more straightforward storytelling, the fluidity and precision are highly admirable. The camera movements of point-of-view shots are always seamlessly integrated with the movement of the character doing the looking. The film’s second scene, where Casey and two other girls are kidnapped by Kevin who is hijacking their car in broad daylight, is an outstanding example of Shyamalan’s ultra-precise ability to cautiously portion out just enough information to create a feeling of almost inexplicable underlying dread.

The unreality of the situation to Casey is underlined by the fact that we never see Kevin, who sits in the driver’s seat just next to her, and Casey in the same shot – we almost become uncertain that he is really there. There are also elegant flourishes on a smaller scale: witness how the camera is swinging back and forth, almost ritualistically, outside the car each time Casey is about to look in the rear mirror, where minutely unsettling incidents can be glimpsed. And three times, at important moments in the film, the camera performs a half-circular movement to end up in a close-up on Casey: after Kevin’s first abusive attack when the girls are trapped in the cellar; when she later discover a way to escape her prison; and in her last scene of the film.

There are also very mild occurrences of the vertigo effect, for example in the opening shot – this is the reason we feel Casey’s sense of alienation so acutely, even though we know nothing about her. Another stylistic motif is that we very often are looking slightly up at the characters.

Although also his early films were concerned with violence and bleakness, there was also a heavily emphasised lyrical element to the works that is now mostly absent. But Split nevertheless calls upon a full range of key Shyamalan obsessions: innocence, faith (Kevin’s belief in the myth of the superhumanly Beast), purpose (Kevin desires to ascend to the next level of humanity), mentor characters (mainly the psychiatrist), secrets, rituals (Kevin’s transformation to the Beast must happen in a certain way; the ritual of the flower bouquet at the train station), withdrawal from society often due to terrible traumas (Kevin and Casey after childhood abuse), cellars as important locations.

Confined and enclosed spaces have also traditionally played a big part, for example the large but still enclosed environment of The Village, the Signs family hiding in the cellar, and the family seeking refuge in the house of the “crazy lady” in The Happening (2008). Most of the action of Split takes place in a cellar and in small rooms within that again. To top it off there are 23 multiple personalities locked inside the confined space of a single body.

Splits, parallels and codewords of pain

Kevin Wendell Crumb has 23 personalities inside and a 24th one “on the move”. But Split also extends this scheme to the other characters. Significantly, it is not one but three girls who are captured. During the story’s initial stages the three girls are fighting for dominance about how to handle the situation in a way reminiscent of Kevin’s “alters”. The three are further split into two factions. There is the outsider Casey, and there are the “normal” girls, re-split into two, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who stick together but with Claire as the dominant one.

Split is constantly dividing the captives into these two factions through visual means like shot composition or editing – about the only pattern-breaking situation is, for some reason, the scene when they are cowering on the bathroom floor with Kevin/Dennis towering over them; here Marcia is aligned with Casey. Eventually, not unlike how Kevin’s alter Dennis came into being and emerged as a leader figure, Casey will be the dominant one, due to her ability handling abusive situations. (The fact that the two others initially keep spouting cliches out of self-help books or popular media – “we have to fight with all our beings” – is not bad acting or writing, but intentional demonstration of how ill-equipped they are to deal with danger.)

Soon they will be kept in three separate rooms, compartmentalised like Kevin’s alters. The rooms and corridors of the area they are held can be likened to a brain: the surroundings seem to constitute a quite small and finite entity, but it is at the same time labyrinthine and unknowable – like the girls we never get a grip on the actual layout. Later, when Claire and Marcia work together to escape their separate rooms, they collaborate like some of Kevin’s alters do (but still with Claire giving the orders).

Seen in a certain light, Dr. Fletcher too is fragmented. She has devoted her life to empathise with and understand not only a large number of patients but a wide range of personalities within them. It is her whole life, her home doubles as her office, and she has never lived with anyone. Like Casey and Kevin she is an outsider and viewed with distrust by the rest of the scientific community. She is also tied to Kevin as a mother figure, a benign counterpart to his own monstrous mother.

The most significant bond is formed by Kevin and Casey. Casey’s bearlike uncle is a tormentor to her like the Beast later will be, and she is pointing a weapon at both of them. Like Kevin, Casey was abused as a child by the one closest to her (after her uncle becomes her guardian). During the abuse situation in Casey’s flashback they are pretending to be animals, which directly echoes the Beast’s persona and abilities and a later revelation about the cellar’s actual surroundings. The half-naked Beast mirrors the uncle’s state of undress during the abuse. These strands go even further: Casey’s adult relatives are split in two, her father and her uncle, where the latter seems to be the dominant one; and Casey’s and Claire’s fathers look strikingly similar.

Casey’s discomfort interacting with others on the outside – and in captivity the girl who just wants to be alone has the company of others forced on her – recalls how Kevin’s alters are doomed to share the same body. Like the girls are prisoners, the alters are trapped inside Kevin. It is significant that Casey’s most successful attempt at tricking Kevin comes after she manages to forge a bond with Hedwig, the child-Kevin, through telling him that she sometimes does bad things at school, to be put into detention, so she can be alone.

The tightest bonding between Kevin and Casey, however, paradoxically arrives at the point when he is the strongest, as the Beast. There are few moments in film history more cathartic, more truthful thematically and emotionally, than the one when he notices the terrifying scars on her body. He realises she is broken like him, thus in no need of being devoured.

Now that her third layer of clothes – one for each captive girl – has been peeled away, he acknowledges there was only a superficial similarity between Casey and the other girls. They were dressed in similar fashion, they were all looking extremely healthy and vital, almost chubby – ideal food for the Beast – but in heart-rending contrast to Casey’s perfect facial skin, there is a whole landscape of scars hidden on her torso. Like there was a keyword for returning Kevin to a saner state by saying his full name out loud, “Kevin Wendell Crumb”, scribbled on a piece of paper, Casey’s pain is written on her body in a language of scars, forming another keyword that can still the Beast’s brutality.

Split is about survival techniques to cope with a hostile and abusive environment. While Kevin have fled into an irrational state, creating new personas to survive – Dennis was necessary to keep everything perfectly neat and squeaky-clean, the only way to appease his mother – Casey has escaped into a rational world. She is still split, in that she seems petrified with fear but in a parallel track her mind is racing, as if operating in a hidden space. She is using her intelligence and experience to play along with Kevin’s alters, to sound out their weaknesses and take advantage of them. For example, her advice to Marcia to pee on herself turns out to be highly efficient to short-circuit a sexual abuse situation with the obsessively cleanly Kevin/Dennis, and certainly springs from personal experience with her uncle.

Already in their first moments together, in the early scene in the car, there is a peculiar connection between Kevin and Casey. Casey is not immediately put to sleep like the others. Instead they just sit looking at each other, as if he is wondering whether she really needs the treatment. Her tears at that moment, which seem to spring forth automatically, is the start of a long arc that ends in her tears during the confrontation with the Beast – at that late stage the tears signify an intense meeting of minds. They are reminiscent of another meeting of minds, when Kevin/Dennis makes himself known to Dr. Fletcher for the first time, when both are in tears over the trust and respect they show each other.

From now on the article contains major spoilers.

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The euphoric U-turn

I did not see this coming. I’ve never been further away. I recognised immediately one of the many fondly-remembered themes from the Unbreakable score when it suddenly turned up here towards the end of Split, as we leave Casey in the car and there is a cut-away to a statue of two lions. How nice of Shyamalan to quote one of his earlier films, especially since the music is so well suited to the bittersweetness of the situation, I thought. But then it just goes on playing, over a scene where Kevin’s selves are discussing among themselves. Soon the quote becomes increasingly insistent, as the hero’s theme from that earlier film starts its chugging rhythms.

Left in a state of exponentially growing mystification, I now followed the film, after its seemingly satisfying closure, going off on a curious tangent, as the camera enters a diner where a bunch of people are avidly following a newscast reporting on the aftermath of the abduction. The reporter says that the criminal has been nicknamed The Horde. Then someone starts to talk about a case fifteen years ago where the criminal also was assigned a strange name, but she cannot recall which. At this point we glimpse a man who has been hidden by her body, starting to respond to her.

At first I think it must be Kevin, hiding in plain sight among the unwitting populace, because the man’s shaven head and general head shape are quite similar, plus who else could it really be?! At the same time, I can perfectly recall the case she is talking about, because that music is still playing, and it was established just before that the action takes place in Philadelphia. When the man says “Mr. Glass”, the lady moves away and the camera has come closer, in my brain the face slowly morphs into that of…Bruce Willis!

It felt like someone had detonated a happiness bomb inside me. I can hardly remember a case where a film’s dying seconds had left me so euphoric. The briskness of this U-turn was also amazing – in virtually a split second, like a deft chiropractor’s sudden twist, cascades of things I had no idea was even in play fell into place, and an already brilliant film was taken to a whole new level. In the process, Shyamalan’s trademark twist tactic was rejuvenated, refined and elevated to a meta dimension. The simplicity of concept and execution is also beautiful, and its place at the utmost end gives it maximum explosive power – in fact, the presence of a twist, after all, in the film becomes some kind of extra-twist.

There has long been sporadic wish-fulfilment talk about a sequel to Unbreakable – especially since Shyamalan has maintained he filmed just the first third of what was originally written – but his career has been so far down in the doldrums that it seemed like pure fantasy. This film’s ending does so many things. It signals that a sequel is very much a possibility. Bruce Willis’s presence indicates he is more than happy to reprise his role as David Dunn.

The quality of Split in itself, and not least its excellent box office figures, suggests Shyamalan could be bankable for a major studio and a large budget again, on which a proper Unbreakable sequel would depend, and generate a craving for such a film among a wider audience than the already-converted. All of this might pave the way for a return of Samuel L. Jackson as Mr. Glass if the plot should so allow. (We also ache for more of Anya Taylor-Joy, given the unresolved nature of her relationship to her abusive guardian uncle.) The fact that Split is executed with such discipline and lack of self-indulgence by a Shyamalan left completely to his own devices also makes it a perfect calling card to re-attract a big studio.

The Unbreakable universe also plays smoothly into the current fad for super-hero movies – and the twist’s placement turns it into a comment on the post-credit teasers of the Marvel films – but considering Unbreakable‘s status as perhaps the most artistically successful super-hero film ever, it would be inordinately interesting to see a contemporary Shyamalan gaze on a maligned genre.

Locally for Split, the twist turns what we thought of as a gripping self-contained story into a mere foretaste of a larger battle. On a plot level it also sheds light on why the birth of the Beast should occur precisely in a train. Split has been twisted into a super-hero story, and in those there is often a clear link between hero and villain. David Dunn discovered his unbreakability during a train crash, so he too was “born” on a train. Everyone else died, and this ties nicely into Kevin’s loss, since his father left his life on a train. I initially thought that Kevin’s father might have been a passenger, and thus casualty, on the same train as David Dunn.

This would have created an even stronger bond, and poetic irony, between them, and also a much more concrete reason for Kevin to lay the bouquet of flowers on the platform before his transformation. The film suggests, however, that Kevin’s mother started to abuse him when he was three, and he looks much older than eighteen – and has worked at the zoo for ten years.

In addition to the music, the wholly surprising twist is nevertheless in hindsight foreshadowed in a number of details just before. When Casey sits in the police car in her last scene, there is a railway bridge in the background, similar to the one we saw many times near the sports stadium in Unbreakable. (There is even a train arriving on it in the scene, a nice touch.) To a non-Philadelphian I guess the insignia on the policewoman’s uniform in scene is the first real confirmation that we are in that city. In the Kevin’s run-down hide-out there are shards of glass on the floor. We only see him as a reflection, in two mirrors (he’s split!), and while almost totally absent in Split until now, reflective surfaces were a big thing in Unbreakable.

Furthermore, the above-mentioned musical theme initially appeared in the earlier film when we saw the 13-year-old Elijah/Mr. Glass for the first time, he too as a reflection, in a TV screen. It also suddenly becomes clear why the official Split poster shows Kevin behind a pane of (cracked) glass. (Another echo is that the hero of Unbreakable saves two children kept prisoner.)

It seems that Split also stylistically is signalling the coming alignment with Unbreakable. Long takes are not prevalent in Split, but the mirror scene with Kevin is now shot in a long take, the camera moving from mirror to mirror as Kevin alternates between personalities. The final diner scene is also done in two long takes, with the camera self-consciously gliding around the premises, harking back to the highly overt stylistic apparatus of Unbreakable.

In this final scene the supervillain is “officially” christened The Horde. It is fitting that the film’s last (significant) dialogue are David Dunn’s answer to the forgetful lady. Thus Split finishes exactly like Unbreakable, with a close-up of a lone character, having just uttered the words “Mr. Glass”.

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