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 second of four articles about Split (2010). The first one is here. The third is here. The last one is upcoming.
The first article on Split was written at the time of its release, based on theatrical viewings. It offered a general appreciation of M. Night Shyamalan‘s film, discussed the group dynamics between the three abducted girls, and went into detail about the revelation at the end. These new articles, very much screenshot-oriented, are the fruit of analysis using the Blu-ray edition.
This piece is in three parts. The first part will look at some early scenes and how they manifest both physical and mental isolation. The second part contains a shot-by-shot analysis of the abduction scene. The third part examines major motifs, mainly corridor shots, animals and flowers.
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.
The opening of Split is particularly inspired. We see Casey in splendid isolation from the other girls frolicking at Claire’s birthday party (in the up-market King of Prussia mall just outside Philadelphia). Visually it exerts an enduring fascination, through a device that it feels innovative to utilise as early as in an opening shot: a judicious use of a Vertigo shot, so discretely applied as to be almost invisible, but also a bit hard to get a grip on. The camera seems to be tracking out while zooming in, but in a hesitant, arhythmic, “impure” fashion, and there also appears to be some panning going on. The icky-looking plants in the foreground basically stay constant.
Casey’s gaze into the camera is of particular interest. Soon, through a shot from Dennis’s point-of-view, he will follow Casey and the three others to their car, and could well have been inside the mall too, observing the birthday party. If we entertain the thought experiment that the shot represents Dennis’s gaze at the party, this means that the interaction between Casey and the villain through the whole film will both start and end with them looking into each other’s eyes – the end is their climactic meeting of minds between the bars of the cage below the zoo. There are also some metaphoric possibilities here: if the opening shot is his gaze, the fact that it contains two simultaneous devices at odds with each other, the track-out and zoom-in, perfectly fits the situation with all the competing personalities who share the space of Kevin Wendell Crumb’s body.
The sense of internal contradiction is subtly carried forward into the second scene, where the two other girls don’t really want Casey, the social misfit, to get a ride in the car. Claire says: “You won’t be able to hear my dad tell jokes that only he thinks are funny for an entire car ride unless you come. You don’t really wanna miss that.” Like the technicalities did for the opening shot, her irony splits the situation in two conflicting parts: it is an invitation but also a suggestion that she really ought not to come.
The remark is also, of course, a punishment of her father for inviting Casey along. (Some further contradiction can be traced in the dialogue just before, as Claire explains why she invited Casey in the first place: “Dad, I can’t invite everyone in my art class except for one person without social networking evidence inflicting more pain on that person than was intended. And I’m not a monster.” He father answers: “I’m proud of you. I think.” There is no real empathy and even a hint that a little pain was intended – and her father is of two minds about her.)
The first article already discussed how the three girls fighting for domination in the cell can be a metaphor of the film’s split personality issues, and also how this could be extended to other characters and situations (see here.) There is more, however, to be said about this. The cell itself has three split personalities:
From these “pure” screenshots, this could be three different rooms. One wall is made of very solid-looking wood, with the door in the middle – as a background, this wall is often associated with Kevin’s various personalities, as the prison guard. Another wall is smooth and bright (with the bathroom as an additional light source) – often associated with Casey, since she turns out to be “pure”. The two remaining walls are made of rough stone – associated with Claire and Marcia, because they are “impure”, and two in number since they operate and are treated as a pair.
Since Split spends a lot of time in that room, it is understandable that Shyamalan felt a general need for visual variety, but the nature of the walls is also emitting a faint murmur about the film’s central issue. One should not make too much of it, because the correspondence between character and background is by no means applied with iron-clad consequence, but if ignored we would miss out on the film’s richness. In some cases the demarcation lines split shots roughly down the middle:
Continuing further along this avenue, Split is also a film of textures. Virtually every room has its own identity, both through wall material and decoration:
Back to the film’s second scene again: in a shot-reverse shot constellation, alternating with the camera position above, there are three shots of Casey. She is placed in a peculiar variation of the ultra-common over-the-shoulder shot, where her face is split down the middle, half-hidden behind Claire’s father:
Even though she puts a brave, friendly face on it, she is squirming inside with frustration that she cannot slip out of the invitation. Visually it is as if she is hiding in plain sight, getting progressively more obscured the more her hope of getting away is diminished. (Her explanation “the car broke down” might be a ruse to hide that she could possibly live in poor circumstances and would have to have taken the bus anyway. Or her uncle might have refused to pick her up.)
That “half-look” of her face returns in the aftermath of the prisoners’ first encounter with Hedwig, when Casey storms towards the camera to peek through the crack between the door and the frame:
Maintaining her position as outsider, in virtually every situation in the cell Casey is visually isolated from the two other girls. In the second cell scene, where they discuss what to do after having managed to short-circuit Dennis’s sexual assault on Marcia, the apartness is especially prominent:
In the above shot the focus also signals Casey turning introspective, leading to the second flashback. It comes in response to Claire’s exasperated line: “Why do you act like you’re not one of us?” It is not an act, however, a core issue that Split sets out to gradually and convincingly demonstrate. After the astounding climactic unveiling in the cage, where the documentation of Casey’s apartness is carved into her scarred body for The Beast to see, his exclamation “You are different from the rest” echoes Claire’s question.
We are now going to walk through the first cell scene, with a special look at the (lack of) interaction between Casey and the others, but also point out other pertinent items. The tone of the scene is a curious mix of being wholly from Casey’s point-of-view while she is also completely out of the loop, as if here too occupying her own plane of existence. We almost never see all of the captives in the same shot, and when it happens they are always separated by different depth levels or other means. All double-column montages in this chapter are to be parsed row-by-row, left-to-right.
Now the set-up from the abduction scene in the car is repeated. It is as if Casey does not exist, everything is about Dennis and the other girls. It is reasonable, however, to assign the shots of Dennis to Casey’s point-of-view. In the below montage we see how Marcia is visually “primed” to be the victim of Dennis’s abusive attack. First, perhaps a reflex reaction to Dennis wiping off the chair, she wipes her face with her hand. Then a closer shot emphasises that she is closest to Dennis. Finally, when Dennis starts to look in their direction, she moves her hand to pull down her short skirt, an act that serves as a signal for Dennis, who immediately says: “I choose you first”. It is almost as if he is punishing Marcia for being, in his eyes, provocatively dressed, or he takes Marcia’s movement as a weakness to be pounced on, like a predator picking out the most vulnerable herd member as its prey.
Claire cannot maintain her hold of Marcia, but she manages to wriggle free from Dennis. Perhaps it is just momentum, maybe Marcia felt, on some level, that Claire let go of her a bit too easily. Claire might have been afraid of becoming a victim herself. She is the dominant one: in the film’s second scene, at the restaurant, Marcia uttered just one short sentence, while Claire spoke in elegantly phrased, convoluted sentences. (Later in the film, as they try to break out of the closets, Marcia is typically doing the hard work of picking the lock with the hanger, while Claire is contributing a steady stream of pep talk.)
Anyway, in a device that wholly breaks with the rest of the scene, there is a subjective camera rushing towards Casey, who suddenly gets involved (but, notably, she is alone in the shot):
The camera pans to the right with Claire as she enters the bathroom, and continues in an arc that ends up capturing Casey. This device will be repeated twice: when she realises where the keys are so she can escape from the anteroom, and in the police car, her last scene in the film. (More about this in the fourth article.) The movement is also adding to the unreality of the situation: what we assumed to be a POV shot either was not, or turns into something else during the pan. Furthermore, the gradual change in background texture, due to the new wall, plus the extreme soft focus bestowed on Claire, indicate that Casey has retreated into a zone of her own.
For she sits shaking with a panic attack, tears breaking out exactly when a disembodied voice says: “I hear the tiniest little splash [an allusion to her tears?] and here it comes.” This kicks off the film’s first flashback. Like Split itself it starts in a restaurant, and emphasises a tragic contrast between ruined teenager and innocent child. (Note how the angle on her face is replicated in her first flashback shot.)
Like so often in Shyamalan, Split is concerned with confined spaces. There are three strata, all locked: the cell, the anteroom and the basement itself. In addition we have the cage in which Casey locks herself in the climax, the wardrobe closet in which Claire hides during her escape attempt, the closets that will eventually imprison Claire and Marcia, and many other narrow rooms and corridors.
The car of the abduction scene is a harbinger of these spaces, a tiny cell, its locked doors controlled by Dennis. In her last scene Casey is again sitting in a car, but upon news that her uncle has arrived, this time she is reluctant to leave. Another paradox: after all her efforts to escape, to avoid being consumed by The Beast she ends up locking herself inside the cage, even though its spring-loaded latch traps her, potentially for a long time.
This serves as a physical metaphor for a mental state typical of how Shyamalan characters deal with past trauma: to survive extreme psychological duress they withdraw from society. The Beast bending the bars of the cage also cries out for metaphor: he strives for the breakthrough of entering the cage, but also for breaking out of the boundaries of human limitations, very much exemplified by his various weak co-personalities.
The car is also an arena for another Shyamalan concern: the home invasion, unfolding in film after film. This interview describes the director’s fear of a disruption of normal life (and how his children at various ages have influenced him). In Split, however, most of the invasion has already happened: the evil mother tormenting Kevin, the guardian/uncle abusing Casey. In the car invasion, history repeats itself for Casey in a parallel version: Claire’s father is replaced by a tormentor – literally speaking, by taking the father’s place behind the wheel – who proceeds to claim dictatorial control over their lives.
The first article described the abduction scene as “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.” Its use of off-screen space is also exemplary. In a film with an ubiquitous score, music is banned here. It starts out with an overture, a 32-second steadicam shot following them to the car. After a while, as Claire’s father is acknowledging someone coming up, it is revealed as a POV shot from an unseen Dennis. This reinforces the theory that also the opening shot might be a Dennis POV shot. In this chapter all double-column montages are to be parsed column by column.
The new visual information is very unsettling: why is left-over food from the restaurant now spilled on the tarmac?! At the same time the utter mundanity of the items is disarming. The red colour, however, might signal danger. Also, there are three boxes, two close together and one further away, the number and placement corresponding to the girls and their position in the car. The untidiness is in ironic contrast to Dennis’s soon-to-be-revealed obsessive neatness.
During the mirror shot the car is started and with that, bland music in the loudspeakers. (“Wonderful World” from this album.) For some reason Casey is now overwhelmed by a sense of danger. Later we will realise it is the reaction of an abuse victim, forced to cope with brutality as part of everyday life:
All the time, Claire and Marcia have been giggling over fun postings on social media (our modern obsession with smartphones making us oblivious to real-life dangers). But now Claire has woken up and says: “Pardon me, sir. I think you have the wrong car.”
Like in the first scene in the cell, there is the odd feeling that Casey is not present at all, as if an invisible barrier has sprung up between her and the world. Dennis does not seem to have noticed her at all, and now there are more important things on his mind:
Their meeting of minds in the climax feels paradoxical since they seemed to occupy separate planes of existence in the car. They never appear in the same shot: all frames are clean and pure, without the intrusion of a shadow or half-glimpsed body part of the other. It is notable, however, that the resolution happens through the bars of the cage, with a certain apartness being maintained. In the car she must be wondering why he has not gassed her. Is she so passive that he is pondering whether it is needed? Or is he planning to kill her, since she has seen his face? We must remember that he was only planning to take the other girls. Despite his inhuman stare, there is nevertheless a sense of a connection. Is he on some level recognising a kindred spirit, a fellow victim of abuse?
Why is Casey so paralysed in the car? Her mild panic attack is a harbinger of later behaviour: her shaking before the first flashback, and the total breakdown after the fifth flashback, which reveals the child abuse by her uncle. In that flashback, after her uncle has snatched the weapon away from the 5-year-old Casey, who was pointing it at him, the child stands shaking with fear. Her uncle says: “Could have killed me.” Possibly he has managed to drill a terrible sense of guilt over this incident into the child, enabling him to maintain a hold over her as her later guardian. Anyway, there is a clear parallel between the abusers on these two time planes, and also between her frozen behaviour in these two incarnations…
The deer scene contains one of Split‘s few instances of non-diegetic music from an external source, the mournful “Tribunale” by Ennio Morricone, originally composed for The Murri Affair (Mauro Bolognini, 1974). Within a paradoxical framework of a beautiful autumnal landscape it drives home a bleak world view of predators and death. Her father says: “The thrill, Casey, is about whether you can or can’t outsmart this animal.” The scene illuminates Casey’s two conflicting tendencies: using her intelligence to outwit The Horde, or just give in to a feeling of inevitable doom, made emblematic by the fallen animal. (It is telling that Marcia’s “we can win” is immediately parried, as if an automatic response, by Casey’s “he’ll hurt us”.)
There is an entire network of interconnectivity and interchangeability between hunter and hunted in Split. On their trip, the family hunt animals, but the uncle is also hunting Casey. The Horde are hunting for girls – Hedwig says Dennis “followed those two girls for four days” – and literally regard them as food. The name of the 24th identity, The Beast, alludes to the animal world and humans are prey for his cannibalism. To lure Casey into an abusive situation, her uncle says “let’s pretend we’re animals again.” And his “animals don’t wear clothes” and lack of clothes not only connect to the half-naked The Beast, as that identity eventually appears with his bare torso, but also to how the three girls are gradually stripped in captivity. In the climax Casey is back to hunting again, brandishing a shotgun, in a situation where the status of hunter and hunted is again confused, since The Beast is at the same time trying to kill her.
It is not shocking that doors are exceedingly important in a film revolving around imprisonment and escape, with its action even to a large extent confined to the environment of the captives. Still, in Split doors are visually obsessed upon to an unusual degree, and from every conceivable angle:
There might also be a small motif around the number three. Split features three prisoners, three psychiatric sessions, three murdered characters, three member of The Horde (Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig), three strata of enclosed spaces (cell, anteroom, entire basement), and (as we shall soon see) three corridors.
Most of the doors in Split are infuriatingly, despairingly closed. Its second-most prevalent motif is corridors, captured in a way that conjures up a world of limited options, lines of perspective receding, inexorably narrowing, as if a metaphor of the point-of-no-return consequences of The Horde’s actions. The main corridor is the tight, yellow passage that links most of the important locations: the anteroom leading to the cell, the kitchen, Hedwig’s room, the two closets that will hold Claire and Marcia. There is another corridor, more like a tunnel, which will engulf Split, as it grows darker and murkier, more id-like, towards the end. Leading into the basement itself, there is an outer, broader corridor…
In the above cases, character identification is an overriding concern. So when Dr. Fletcher walks down the corridor looking for the prisoners, and Casey is in the same passage after having finally managed to get out of the anteroom, they appear in close shots. Their POV shots, however, play into the greater scheme of empty, restricted space. (The film’s large assortment of inventive POV shots will be discussed in the fourth article.)
A special feature of the Split landscape is an enormous arsenal of pipes. They can be found in the tunnel and the outer corridor, adding visual complexity and metaphoric associations to co-existing identities and parallel trajectories, but like the corridors themselves they all run in the same direction along similar lines of perspective. The top shot below depicts the outer corridor – with Dr. Fletcher and Dennis on the way to their impromptu session – keeping up the strategy of cavernous long shots. It is an image of utter simplicity, but the pipes provide dissonance, a restrained wildness and surrealism:
The duct is another of the film’s many cramped spaces. A key part of the scene where Marcia attempts to escape from the kitchen is shot in a way that makes space seem even more constricted by using only a fraction of the image. (There is some “screenplay irony” here, because just before Marcia said to Casey: “We need to get to a window or a door, or something,” and when the door from the kitchen also has a window in it, escape is of course irresistible to Marcia.)
It is merely hinted at, but as Casey is rescued, there is a resonant interplay between various thematic strands of imprisonment, for example in the contrast between Casey’s freedom and the eternally trapped zoo animals, like The Beast too will be if the authorities can catch him. Kevin’s life as a zoo employee has inspired the emergence of The Beast, whose goal is recognition and respect, as well as transcendence of the limitations of being human. The Beast acts like lions and tigers will if they get out, they will kill on instinct. The Beast wants to eat the girls, like humans do with animals. Finally, a zoo is a collection of cages, like the cell with the girls and the cage of the climax, and there is also a similarity with the folders on Kevin’s computer: one compartment for each personality.
It is not surprising, then, that Split is rife with animal imagery and references. Patricia (in the kitchen scene): “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.” Dennis describes The Beast thus: “He’s much bigger than I am and I’m the biggest of all of us. He’s tall. He’s very muscular. And he’s got a long mane of hair and his fingers are twice the length of ours.” (The long mane of hair is a description that also fits Casey very well.) Dr. Fletcher concludes: “He is formed because of your time in this place.” Patricia’s above obsession with animals may also have played a role.
The connections between the The Beast and the zoo, and thus animals, are clear. And Split does not get any less complicated by the fact that The Beast, himself one of 24 personalities, is an amalgam of various animal species, with their differing personalities and traits…!
This animal connection and The Horde’s lair under the zoo nicely dovetail with Casey’s background as a hunter, her father who is teaching it to her, and also with the dead deer that produces resonance in the third flashback. There are also stuffed animals on the walls of the restaurant in the first flashback, where the uncle in addition brags about the “freak of nature” of a buck he almost nailed. The uncle himself is extremely large and reminiscent of a bear. He is also luring Casey into an abuse situation with: “Let’s pretend we’re animals again.”
These are well-known statues at the Philadelphia Zoo: an elephant and a cub and “The Dying Lioness“. The Fairmount Park Art Association’s Annual Report (1876) says of the latter: “the maternal instinct, stronger than death, [which] has caused the dying lioness to give her last strength to the nourishment of her young; over the mother and the whelps stands the lion, the prominent figure of the group, who roars defiance, grief and rage.” The elephant and the lion statues, and their protection of weaker family members, can surely be connected to The Beast and his gang of weaker personalities (The Horde), and to Kevin and Casey’s absent/dead fathers.
The child-like stick figures being taken by The Beast in the drawing also resemble stylised flowers, for example the ones in the cell: in the bathroom and on the cots. These are pincushion proteas, named after Proteus of Greek mythology, who had the ability to change shape, which fits well with the body-altering properties of Kevin’s personalities.
Patricia buys lilies, a flower often used in funerals, for Dennis to lay down on the train platform in honour of Kevin’s absent father. She also puts a “pretty flower” in Casey and Marcia’s hair before marching them out to the kitchen. It is hard to determine which kind, but it might be a type often used for decorating flower bouquets. It is Patricia who is dealing with flowers – Dennis gives her the light for a moment at the station to go buy some – so it is probably not coincidence that as soon as she has entered the cell in her introduction scene…
Here Dennis is pacing around in the library section of the office, like an animal trying to hide in the landscape – pretending to be Barry, he keeps his distance to the psychiatrist – and he is far into the depth of the shot, corresponding to the level where an animal might turn up in the forest outside the tent in the second flashback.
The connection is strengthened by that flashback being positioned just prior to the session. (In between there is just a brief return to the cell, where Casey’s line “I’ll let you know when I hear something that makes sense” is an approach shared by the psychiatrist too.) Dr. Fletcher, the “hunter”, is looking for signs of her patient’s mental state, trying to “outsmart” him. Although they are staged in a wholly stationary fashion, the psychiatrist will adopt this hunter approach in the other sessions as well.
Returning to those disgusting plants in the opening shot, we find they are called snake plants (which feature prominently in Isabella Rossellini‘s not exactly joyful apartment in David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet from 1986). Not only are they neatly fusing the animal and flower/plant motifs, but with such a powerful connection to The Horde, their presence strengthens the theory that this shot is from the abductor’s point-of-view. At the very least, the greenery represents the looming threat, their tentacles even specifically surrounding the heroine.
We shall revisit Dr. Fletcher in the third article, which collects everything to do with the psychiatrist and her patient, in addition to rounding up lots of references to M. Night Shyamalan‘s earlier films. Even though Split is not as formally audacious as his early works, its apparent simplicity, as we have already seen, conceals a surprising amount of ideas, refinement and subtlety.