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. There are two articles on After Earth (2013), here and here, and two articles about The Last Airbender (2010), here and here. This is the third of four articles about Split (2010). The first one is here, the second one here. The last one is upcoming.
Here is more detailed analysis of M. Night Shyamalan‘s film Split, following on from the second article. The first part collects everything to do with the psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher: first some general items, then the sessions with her patient Kevin, first how they start and end, then the first, second and third session, their last meeting in Kevin’s basement, and finally her mysterious visit to an art gallery. The second part will deal with references, to Unbreakable, to Shyamalan’s other films, and a brief discussion of other works with similar themes. There is also an addendum about Shyamalan’s cameo scene.
Just a word about naming: Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) has 24 personalities inside, and I will generally use the name of whatever character has “the light” at any time. This means that Kevin, in the scope of the incidents covered in this article, will be called Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig (sometimes these three “rogue” personalities will be referred to as The Horde) or Barry. Since Dennis is posing as Barry during the three sessions with Dr. Fletcher, his real name will be used.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of Split, here is a brief outline of the plot.
Welcome to the normal world of the psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher. In contrast to the basement universe of Kevin’s personalities and their prisoners, a staircase is required to reach her bright third-floor office. (It is unclear whether it also doubles as her apartment, which would dovetail with her work obsession. Dennis’s question, “You live alone?”, while studying the premises seems to indicate that she indeed lives there. There is one shot of her lying on a bed, but that could be in another, otherwise unseen room. On the other hand, folders on Kevin’s personalities are spread out, and earlier that day she accessed an archive drawer of folders, before leaving to meet her colleague Joe and then go to the art gallery, a chain of events consistent with living somewhere else.)
The early scene after she has walked up those stairs that spends some time at her office serves as a prologue to her presence in Split. We will start out by looking at some features of that and other non-session scenes, including how they sometimes link up with the rest of the film.
The first question: is the simplicity of the scene just a way to shoot a low-budget film as fast as possible – or is it marked by rigorous formalism? At least, both shots are intensely symmetrical. Dr. Fletcher is flanked by the brown posts leading in to her office, positioned at the very edges of the frame, and the monitor is framed by two chairs (the green one to the left is the one Dennis sits in). Furthermore, this frontal shot-reverse shot constellation is part of a broader pattern, to which we will return in the fourth article. One of her close-ups lasts 34 seconds, the tenth longest take in the film.
While presenting background info and raising important issues, it is also this scene that gives us the most unfiltered, loveliest picture of the psychiatrist’s passion and enthusiasm for her field and patients. Her near-monologue is accompanied by a discrete, serene piece of music, and on repeated viewings, as the score becomes a more conscious part of the experience, it sounds as if she is singing to it. The score ends with a romantic flourish at her last line: “Have these individuals, through their suffering, unlocked the potential of the brain? Is this the ultimate doorway to all things we call unknown? Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” Many aspects of this scene will be meaningfully connected to a later, pivotal situation.
Dennis-masquerading-as-Barry has three sessions with the psychiatrist. (The second article started to nibble away at this material with Dennis and plants.) Different strategies and moods are employed for each: in the first session he is totally evasive, in the second he is stonewalling any effort at serious discussion, in the third there is finally movement but the resolution and their meeting of minds are not as mutual as Dr. Fletcher thinks. Before delving into the sessions we can learn something from observing how they start and end.
It ends with the word “fantasy”, as Dr. Fletcher dismisses the existence of The Beast. To a certain extent, their reconciliation is as ephemeral as the reflection that started the scene, and her professional knowledge (the diploma) is insufficient to understand the powers she is dealing with. Nevertheless, they are bound, something that has already been signalled. If we backtrack a bit, we can consider the staircase shot that introduced Dr. Fletcher’s first scene:
This is probably the first time Dennis has impersonated Barry in a session, so he is careful to stay as far away as possible. The problem then is that his OCD commands him to correct the position of objects, which he also cannot stand touching. Using Dennis’s yellow cloth will be too conspicuous, so he tries to rub his hands off on his coat or inside his pockets (where the cloth, or several, probably lies too). The acting and mise-en-scène are utterly consequent:
This scene also provides some interesting information. Fletcher says about his employers: “When I last spoke to them, they believed you were a model employee. They found you meticulous and conscientious.” This could mean that it is Dennis who runs the show at work over the last couple of years, since Kevin was put away (on 18 September 2014), when the suppressed, undesirable identity of Dennis surfaced again. She also admits to be a “simple blouse and skirt person”, which could explain how Dennis gets away with impersonating Barry, talking incessantly about fashion without having Barry’s expertise.
The stonewalling session is fittingly marked by a very limited number of set-ups which are clung to throughout:
He tries to explain away the e-mails for unscheduled appointments two days in a row with: “We’re just feeling overwhelmed. Garden-variety issues.” Only at one point his front crumbles, when she wonders that he might really be Dennis because: “you’ve adjusted the chocolate dish twice since you came in here and I understand you have OCD.”
Her patient clings to his story that he is Barry, so Dr. Fletcher realises she cannot get any further and lies to him, pretending to believe him: “You must forgive me. My job is to challenge you.”
This is the session that contains the closest shots of the performers, truly an actors’ showcase. One marvels at the extreme precision and minute nuances in this exploration of facial expressions. McAvoy is the natural centre of the exchange, but Betty Buckley is a perfect partner. She seemed a bit monotonous on early viewings, but a close scrutiny proves her skill in portraying the chess-like cat-and-mouse-game of trying to outwit her patient. Here is a slide show of some McAvoy faces:
The third session is by far the longest, lasting 6:20 over 34 shots. (The first one lasts 3:17 over 34 shots and the second one 3:28 over 21 shots.) Dennis is still masquerading as Barry and only wants to talk about his fashion sketches, stonewalling everything else. While still operating within rigid confines, this session is much more visually complex, except for the psychiatrist:
After some forthright exchanges, she eventually dismisses the existence of The Beast as a fantasy, created to scare the other identities. As soon as she mentions The Beast, he hardly says a word more, but a mournful and wistful music (not included on the official soundtrack) starts speaking for him.
He reacts with disgust, unable to say anything, only breathing heavily, and we hear the off-screen sound of the position of the chocolate dish being corrected. (His touching of that object has been a recurring event in every session.) His compulsive behaviour is suddenly loaded with resonance, and we understand the need for the defence mechanism to alleviate pressure and his clinging to it. Upon rewatching the film, this moment is deepened with information we learn later in the film about Dennis’s origin: “Kevin’s mother had rather malevolent ways of punishing a three-year-old … The one way to avoid her attention was to keep everything spotless, everything perfect.” And after Casey has forced Kevin into the light by saying his real name, we get the third piece of the puzzle…
…through the simplicity of a 16-second single-shot flashback with the monster-mother screaming to an unseen child under a bed: “Kevin Wendell Crumb! You made a mess! Get out here!” The shot appears after as many as five seconds of black screen, as if to suggest how deep this memory is buried in Kevin’s mind, a memory that many of his other personalities have been created to cope with. It ends with a flash of light, which could mark that Dennis is arriving “in the light” to save Kevin at that precise moment. The explosive, concentrated brutality of Kevin’s only flashback forms a painful contrast to the calm, measured tone of Casey’s six flashbacks, a pretty good indication that his own psychological problems are much more severe.
By the way, since Kevin is hiding under a bed and his mother complains about a “mess”, it is tempting to think that he has wet his bed. This could deepen our understanding of the enormous disgust Dennis felt by coming into contact with Marcia’s urine in the first cell scene. (The hanger the mother is using to force Kevin out from under the bed echoes the hanger Marcia is wielding to pry open the closet lock.)
This does not add up spatially for we have never heard or seen her move the chair, and anyway all of her shots are in the same position. Rather than a continuity error, I believe this is the kind of cheating filmmakers often do. (Ozu, for example, was famous for disregarding continuity in favour of composition.) For this has a function: they have grown closer during the session, but at the same time there is an ambivalence. Dennis lets her believe that he has never seen The Beast, and this leaves a gulf between them. Her emotional proximity to him is a bit of an illusion, like the continuity dysfunction. (In the fourth article we shall look at quite a few other instances of spatial trickery.)
This is not a proper session, but the last conversation between Dr. Fletcher and Dennis after she has come to his lair in response to the urgent e-mails for help. They are walking along a corridor, which seems to be the same we saw in the shots interspersing the title sequence where the drugged girls were transported on a trolley. As we saw in the second article, in almost all corridor shots in Split the characters are shown in long shot. But in this situation, the weirdness of the composition, with the abnormal-looking collection of pipes receding into the distance, the mixture of harmony and foreboding, seems to be part of a plan:
The forward motion of the camera reflects the movement in session 3. At that time, however, it was intercut with shots of her, but now it is presented in an unbroken take. He wants to eliminate the gulf that lingered between them after the previous session, for example by now talking freely about his mother. In a parallel to this, Split‘s form tries to heal the incompleteness of that earlier meeting of minds, when the forward camera movement became negated by the later move in the reverse direction. He now trusts her without reservations, opening himself up completely to her. (Soon it transpires that he even wants her to “understand fully” about “the eating of the impure young”.)
The conversation unfolds in an atmosphere of great warmth, and a yearning and bittersweet, yet majestic musical theme starts, but it is not triggered by anything Dennis says. It begins as Dr. Fletcher declares: “My patients have become my family. They are what I’ve chosen instead of a more traditional path.” In fact, it is a more pronounced version of the theme in the Skype scene, and as Dennis takes over the conversation, again we have the impression that the actor is singing to the score, with Dennis’s slow and deliberate phrasings.
(We have a similar meeting of minds, also that with a musical aspect [and involving a long take], when Casey tells Hedwig the truthful story: – “I get into trouble at school, on purpose. So I can get sent to detention. To get away from everyone. So that I can be alone.” Not only does it sound like she is reciting a small poem, to this slow piano theme, she is sharing this music from Hedwig’s Kanye West impersonation just before. We will return to this scene in the fourth article.)
The musical connection between doctor and patient is very telling, a key factor in understanding something never fully explained: Dr. Fletcher’s unwitting role as a Dr. Frankenstein in creating The Beast, and like for her literary precursor, but much more directly, the monster will be the death of her. (The literary monster was constructed from body parts from a variety of corpses, a parallel to Kevin’s splintered identity.) Possibly, her indirect responsibility was originally meant to play a larger part in Split, because as it is now Dr. Fletcher seems more like an innocent bystander caught up in the plot.
Dennis’s lines that follow her declaration about family are distinguished by the same honesty and passion as her Skype speech, and like her, he is referencing case histories (“you wrote about a woman in Germany”). In another connection, both scenes contain long takes. He further says: “You protect the broken. When you said that you thought this situation was extraordinary, I knew you can maybe understand.”; “You were right about everything.”; and that The Beast “believes we are extraordinary. That we don’t represent a mistake, but our potential. You say the same things.” It seems that the psychiatrist’s ideas have nurtured The Horde (Dennis and Patricia), sowing a seed that helped create the monstrosity of The Beast. Then he says, chillingly, “He’s on the move”, exactly the same thing Hedwig said (twice) to the girls about to be sacrificed. Since Dr. Fletcher in a case of poetic justice is about to die, that utterance has the ring of a death sentence. She is proven right and that means her downfall – a quite common poetic irony. Most of the above conversation takes place during the next shots:
She has realised that Dennis is much sicker than she thought, and with almost exaggerated insincerity, while Dennis seems a bit nonplussed, she pretends that it was all very interesting and they should talk more tomorrow. «This has been so wonderful, you being so open.» There is more than a shade of black humour in her extremely fake attitude and her sudden shifty-eyed expression.
This is a slightly awkward spot for Split. She now must have understood that Dennis has taken prisoners, because under the pretence of using the bathroom she tries to find the abducted girls. From my initial screening I remember it felt odd how the psychiatrist managed this leap of reasoning, and Shyamalan’s storytelling here seems to take a bit of a shortcut.
But her reasoning is as follows. During her little “prologue” in her office, she listens to the newscast about the abduction and knows that they were three young girls. She and Dennis have just talked about that “the eating of the impure young” is part of the myth of The Beast. She also knows from before that Dennis “has a proclivity to watch young girls dance naked.” In the third session she discussed an old “incident at work” when Kevin was sexually harassed by two girls who “were 17 or 18”. (This is probably the reason why The Horde decided to abduct two girls, of that age; Casey was there just by coincidence.)
During the session she continued with: “I believe that this brought up issues from when you were a child and abused. Sometimes another incident of abuse can cause suppressed personalities to take the light.” She is certain she is on the right track because it was precisely after having brought it up that Dennis finally made himself known. So when Dennis responds to the mention of the impure young with: “we should discuss that so that you can understand fully” and “sometimes, there’s just no other way,” the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fall into place for Dr. Fletcher.
In the corridor she spots light streaming from under a door and opens the locked-from-outside closet. She stumbles upon Claire, whose disoriented question “Are you real?” touchingly echoes Dennis’s “The Beast is real”. Marcia’s disembodied voice, thin and half-resigned, emanating from the other closet – “Is someone there?” – further reinforces the tone of the scene as a fleeting existential intermezzo. Dennis has sensed the danger, however, and comes up behind the psychiatrist and eventually chloroforms her. As she collapses he props up her body. Here there are various resonances:
Except for the handshake – and even that happened below-frame – they have never touched each other but now they enter an artificial embrace. He protects himself from the gas by the yellow cloth, but it is as if the cloth that usually insulates himself from objects now also protects him from her presence, depriving him of the intimacy of another human being. His pained facial expression of regret is therefore very suitable. Also, Dr. Fletcher has been a substitute mother for him and now she too has turned against him, like his real mother.
The last aspect of the Dr. Fletcher plot line might pose a bit of a problem. How to square her art gallery visit with the rest of Split? There are a small myriad of connections, however, especially when looking back at Shyamalan’s filmography.
This is part of a series of paintings of the same subject so this version aspect relates to the Split multiple personality framework. The bathers’ faces are featureless and their appearance oddly unformed – they are more a collective than individuals, similar to Kevin being a collection of many personalities. Possibly their nudity is relatable to Dennis’s “proclivity to watch young girls dance naked.” Being all female and their featureless or turned-away faces connect directly to Barry’s sketches. When not hiding their faces in depressive, contorted poses, their eyes are constantly elided by weird censor bars, as seen in the following slide slow:
The main reason for Dr. Fletcher’s transfixion, however, is probably awe in front of a genius. The painting is regarded as a major masterpiece. The search for genius and the chance to unlock it seem to be important driving forces behind Dr. Fletcher’s work. She says to her neighbour: “…we look at people who’ve been shattered and different as less than. What if they’re more than us?” During the Skype scene she asks: “Have these individuals, through their suffering, unlocked the potential of the brain? Is this the ultimate doorway to all things we call unknown? Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” In fact, the gallery is a veritable temple of genius, where she has come to worship: for example, to the right of the Cézanne hangs a famous painting by Van Gogh, also that part of a series, and its flower subject of particular interest to Split (here and here).
The second article touched briefly upon how the gallery, including the painting, can be linked to the corridor motif. It also gives Shyamalan an opportunity for a serene, geometrical shot that harks back to the earlier films. Its contrast to the rest of the film strikingly conveys her feeling of clarity, solemnity and purpose on this occasion:
The gallery visit is intercut with three brief segments of a meeting with a man named Joe, apparently a fellow psychiatrist, sympathetic to her cause. Central to that encounter, however, is her struggle to be accepted by a hostile professional environment, so even the intercutting conveys meaning: the gallery as a place of solace, consolation and renewal of purpose.
Considering Shyamalan’s past uncovers many other reasons for the gallery scene. Dr. Fletcher is a parallel figure to Elijah in Unbreakable. Like him she is looking for the extraordinary in others. Both are admirers of art, respectively fine arts and comic book art. They are seen in galleries. (Since Elijah owns a comics museum it is much more central in the earlier film.) The floor of the Split gallery is a reflective surface, a prevalent feature of Unbreakable. Both Dr. Fletcher and Elijah convene several meetings in their office with the person who represents the fulfilment of their quest.
Thus we have already started to uncover the extensive connective tissue between these works. This chapter of the first article discusses the astounding revelation at the utmost end that Split and Unbreakable unfold in the same universe, and this part records the sudden burst of signs of this connection just before. There are also other references, much earlier in the film, that provide some foreshadowing of the revelation, in addition to the late referential storm.
Both films are in CinemaScope, an odd choice for the cramped-quarters story of Split. But since the recent works of The Last Airbender and After Earth also used this format, as a clue it is probably not very efficient. The titles of both films are on the format [he is] Split, [he is] Unbreakable. (The concluding film of the trilogy has been announced as Glass, slightly breaking the pattern, but still announcing a character’s distinguishing trait.) The door crack shots discussed in the fourth article are related to the tight framings of the earlier film. The slowly spinning camera looking up the staircase is in its movement somewhat similar, in milder form, to the pirouette of the camera’s downward gaze at the comic book in Unbreakable.
Totally out of the blue, there is a brief burst in Split preoccupied with numbers, never to return. Patricia: “Do you know, a family of lions can eat 35 pounds a day?” Casey: “A buck can lose 30% of its weight during mating season, chasing does around.” Patricia: “I don’t know if you know, but tigers have only 30 teeth. That’s 12 less than a dog. I thought that was a fun fact.” Unbreakable as a whole is obsessed with numbers and the above dialogue might be a remnant from a script originally intended as part of that film.
Both films feature scenes where a child points a gun at an adult close relative, in Split 5-year-old Casey towards her uncle, in Unbreakable Joseph at his father. There are also some dialogue echoes. In Split: “Is it loaded?”; in Unbreakable: “Joseph, did you load the gun?” (granted, a very natural question in such a situation…!). In Split: “I’m your uncle. Stop it, Casey. Put that gun down.”; in Unbreakable: “Now, I am your father, and I am telling you to put that goddamn gun down right now!” During the climax, Casey is again defending herself, against The Beast, an obvious parallel to Casey’s uncle and guardian (adults, abusers, adversaries, very big, seen half-naked). When Casey shoots The Beast, it turns out he is indestructible, like the hero of Unbreakable.
The Beast also claims that “the broken are the more evolved,” a clear reference to the name of Unbreakable and also Mr. Glass’s extremely brittle bones. (I picked up a nifty idea on the internet for the last film of the trilogy: what if Mr. Glass becomes convinced he can overcome his illness by tapping into the same psychic powers as Kevin?) Another dialogue echo: Dennis tells Dr. Fletcher about The Beast: “He believes we are extraordinary. That we don’t represent a mistake, but our potential.” In Unbreakable Mr. Glass says very near the end: “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake.” Furthermore, Dr. Fletcher says: “One personality is a Russian weightlifter and can lift three times his body weight.” This references David Dunn’s weightlifting, although at 350 pounds he only lifts twice his own weight.
The IMDb trivia point out that in one scene David Dunn comes into physical contact with a mother and child. David reacts to her – there is a flash of light, sound effects of a child screaming in protest (but no flashback at this early stage of David testing out powers) – and she is brightly clothed like the other perpetrators in the film. There has also been speculation that Kevin’s father was killed in the train “accident” Mr. Glass used to discover David.
This is what we know of timelines and the train connection:
- “Kevin’s mother had rather malevolent ways of punishing a three-year-old.” (Dennis about when his personality emerged)
- “You’ve managed there for 10 years.” (Dr. Fletcher about her patient’s workplace)
- “This is still September 18, 2014, right?” (Kevin, the original personality, reappears and has been out of the loop for a long time, at least a year, since Split takes place in the autumn)
- “This is like that crazy guy in the wheelchair that they put away 15 years ago.” (The waitress in the epilogue)
- “Because he resides in the train yard, as the story goes, because Kevin’s dad left on a train.” (Dr. Fletcher recounts the myth of The Beast)
Dealing with the train theory first: from announcements and dialogue before the crash it is clear that David’s train arrives in Philadelphia. So unless Dr. Fletcher has the story wrong (could be), Kevin’s father could not have been killed by the same train. But, for example as pointed out by the user “brightgeist” in the article above, the father might have left on a train years earlier, which could have been derailed by Mr. Glass, since he had been searching for someone with superhuman powers for years. (A conceivable plot element of the follow-up film: The Horde discovers Mr. Glass is the real reason for his father not coming back and is not pleased.)
Anyway, the time line does not fit, neither for the train wreck nor for the child in the stadium being Kevin. If Kevin was three when the abuse started, presumably with the disappearance of his father, he must be in his late teens in Split. With Kevin’s odd body-altering powers he could perhaps have made himself become older – as suggested by Frank Mengarelli in this podcast (at about 14:00) – and look McAvoy’s age (born 1979) and thus could have worked at the zoo for ten years already. This seems a bit far-fetched, since there is no hint that he would have been able to do such an astounding feat so early in his trajectory, and neither any allusion in Split that he has done so. (Also, the ability of bodily transformation seems to be local for each personality.)
Personally I am absolutely fine with the stadium child and the train station being “mere” foreshadowings and/or symbolic connections between the films. The stadium child is also likely a tribute to an excised character from the Unbreakable screenplay. The storyline of Kevin (and the abducted girls) instead in the actual film morphed into the Orange Man home invasion and the imprisoned children in the actual film.
A final item (also mentioned in the IMDb trivia): in Unbreakable Elijah’s mother says there are “always two kinds” of super-villains: “There’s the soldier villain who fights the hero with his hands and then there’s the real threat – the brilliant and evil archenemy who fights the hero with his mind.” The first type corresponds to The Horde in its Beast personality.
To The Sixth Sense: Both films feature a psychiatrist as a central character. In Split she is killed by a patient, in the earlier film he is killed by an ex-patient, and the resolution of his new patient’s problem will mean the end of his existence in any form. He finds key information by examining old records, and the Split psychiatrist is going through old case files and is reminded about an old sexual harassment “incident at work”, which “I believe that I went over this incident with you too fast.”
To The Village: that film is about a community with many personalities, but the village itself is arguably the central unit, akin to a large organism. Split takes the same idea and relocates it into a single individual. In the earlier film the elders tell themselves and others a story, they act it out to make the story real for the villagers, and finally one of them becomes a “real” monster.
In Split some of the identities within Kevin believe in the story of The Beast, who at the end becomes real. The story of Split is echoed in the fact that the monster in The Village is acted out by a character with mental problems, who is “split” between a vulnerable human being and, when in the guise of the monster, a raging killer. There is also a direct, ferocious connection between the monsters in the forest and the entity of The Beast, as well as a concrete reference to do with the colour of red.
To Lady in the Water: Both films has to do with legends becoming true, in Split a wholly self-generated myth, in the earlier film an old Korean myth, with one terrifying aspect: a demon-creature and killer-beast called the Scrunt that. Also the inhabitants of the apartment building in the earlier film also hidden powers. (Shyamalan plays a no-good janitor in Split, an amusing switch-around since the protagonist of Lady in the Water was a janitor with Shyamalan playing a writer who was going to change the world.)
To The Happening:
Dr. Fletcher waits for her meeting with Joe in Rittenhouse Park, the location for the suicide outbreak in Philadelphia. The goat statue (and the lion statue seen in passing in the earlier film) are well-known fixtures in the park. The Happening is also referred to in the addendum about the Shyamalan cameo scene. The unreal atmosphere of the abduction and its use of off-screen space are reminiscent of the brilliant opening scene of earlier film.
To The Last Airbender: How the kiss between Hedwig and Casey connects to other films is covered here. Aang’s astonishment at discovering that he has been frozen in the ice for a hundred years is similar to how Kevin “wakes up” after having been a suppressed identity for a couple of years (since 18 September, 2014). Terrible things have happened in both films during the period. How each personality is getting the light is three times signalled by an extreme close-up, as described in the fourth article – a similar method kicks off Aang’s forays into the Spirit World, which curiously enough also happen thrice.
To After Earth: There are quite a few similarities but on a relatively minor level, see here.
The system with two distinct narrative strands plus a series of flashbacks (the latter more elaborate in Split) is the same as for The Last Airbender and After Earth.
The abduction and imprisonment plot has been dealt with in several excellent films over the recent years: in very austere and serious form in Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015) and Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2011), and in exciting, popular form as a sub-plot in Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez, 2016). The confined space, dominated by a volatile “janitor” character, the initial abduction, the strong yet troubled female protagonist, the preoccupation with getting out, and the uncertainty about the real nature of the situation bear some similarity to 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg, 2016).
My Facebook friend, the film connoisseur Lennart Riis, pointed out to me Split‘s thematic kinship with Martyrs (2008), the masterpiece flagship of French extreme horror, directed by Pascal Laugier, due to the concept of pain being a conduit for spiritual growth and power. Indeed, the brokenness and twisted transcendence through a hideous process, a central feature of that film, rings true with Split, as well as imprisonment and its cellar location.
As regards films featuring multiple personality disorder, one should of course not forget Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) and Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010). But although the consequences of the condition are of utmost importance, the shifts between personalities are less so. Where the disorder is a central feature, the unfairly maligned Raising Cain (Brian De Palma, 1992) has perhaps the greatest artistic interest. It contains a situation where John Lithgow is changing personalities within the scene and take, like James McAvoy in Split, after Casey has “reset” Kevin by saying his real name and various personalities then grab the light.
Joanne Woodward and Sally Field deliver engaging, heartbreaking performances in, respectively, The Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957) and Sybil (Daniel Petrie, 1976), both based on true psychiatric cases. Here there is an amusing parallel with Shyamalan’s film: Woodward was promoted from patient in Eve to psychiatrist in Sybil, while Betty Buckley was elevated from playing the “crazy lady” in The Happening to psychiatrist in Split.
Edward Norton proved in the courtroom thriller Primal Fear (Gregory Hoblit, 1996) yet again that this type of role is fertile ground for virtuoso performances, as a young man accused of a murder he claims that one of his personalities has done. Lizzie (Hugo Haas, 1957), however, is rather cheap and schematic, but there are passages of visual invention.
The next article will have a close look at Split‘s sometimes untrustworthy handling of spatial relationships, along with staging, editing and formal ideas on the shot level, like point-of-view, camera movement and many other types of shots.
The first article said: “I still have reservations about the director cameo scene – its flippancy tends to disturb the tonality of the film.” After repeat viewings I have started to enjoy the humour in it. It is clear Shyamalan intends to poke fun at himself, because his own script has Dr. Fletcher say: “You’re getting a little soft around the middle, Jai.” This is not particularly advanced humour, to say the least, but plays on the fact that he has not had an on-screen cameo since Lady in the Water in 2006, and clearly has put on weight since then. The flippancy, however, is more ubiquitous than it appears.
So when Dr. Fletcher says: “Jai, what health-conscious fast food purveyor did you originally solicit to buy these chicken wings you’ve so lovingly reheated in a minor suicidal gesture?” – studiedly flatly intoned – this seems like self-irony, since Shyamalan often has been accused of writing artificially-sounding dialogue. The extremely unnatural and cumbersome line – the scene is even opened by it – hitting us like a wet blanket in the face at our first gaze at the director (in eleven years), whose roles grew steadily bigger and were another subject of criticism, uttered by an actress in the presence of the writer, an actress whose dialogue is otherwise perfectly normal – this ought to be taken as a provocative jest.
When Dr. Fletcher soon states, “this is wrong on so many levels,” this definitely includes the meta level. It only adds to the joke that the line is offered by the same actress who played the “crazy lady” of The Happening (2008), who was forced to speak in a parody of syntactically tangled, rural folksiness, like “Ain’t no time two people staring at each other, or standing still loving both with their eyes are equal.” So, in her next film for the director, she is commanded to speak in this exaggeratedly bookish manner, on the opposite side of the spectrum. (She later says: “The authors of Hooters play on our incessant need for fat and man’s incessant need to be in the proximity of augmented breasts. It’s like Henry V ran a fast food franchise.” Does this have any meaning at all, on any level?)
Other than that, Shyamalan’s character is made to eat warmed-up fast-food, bought at the politically incorrect Hooters chain, regularly spills the trash he carries out – Dr. Fletcher says that he is “not the most meticulous of people”, which is a hoot since I hope this entire Shyamalan Analysis Project has indicated that as a director he is meticulousness personified – and is generally painted as clueless.
Being a janitor, he is some kind of pathetic parallel figure to Kevin, “head of maintenance” at the zoo. He says about Dennis: “This guy isn’t very neat, is he? He walked right through the trash.” “No, Jai. Any normal person would have walked around it. That was an act.” On a meta level, not only is this film director examining footage – recordings from surveillance cameras – but he is incapable of recognising something as an act…! (The ominous music as Dennis is parading through the trash is a muted relative of the majestic themes of the Skype scene and Dennis’s confession to Dr. Fletcher down in his lair.)
Just a small item right at the very end: Dr. Fletcher’s e-mail correspondents consist entirely constituted of people who have worked on the film, mostly in technical capacities, all evidently in need of psychiatric treatment! They are:
Matthew Shapiro (post-production supervisor on many recent Shyamalan films), Dom Catanzarite (assistant to Shyamalan on recent films, associate producer for Split), Adam Leach (accountancy work), Lisa Liberati (vice president of operations for Shyamalan’s production company Blinding Edge Pictures), Bryan Baker (assistant editor for Split, special effects on others), John Rusk (assistant director on a large number of films), Skip Lievsay (famous sound editor, worked on The Visit and Split). Then there are various special effects people who have worked on his three or four latest films (the Philadelphia-based company Alkemy X): Bob Lowery, Ed Mendez, Jennifer Wessner, Lucas Andrei (also production assistant), Mitch Campbell (uncredited on IMDb, but visual effects production co-ordinator according to this). The presence of so many vfx people is due to this company is also responsible for computer screen graphics in the film. At last there are John B. West (production manager or supervisor on two latest films) and Charles S. Rowe (script supervisor for The Visit and Split).