Split, Part III: Meeting of multiple minds

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 here, and the fourth here.


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.


Part I: The Fletcher sessions

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 and last shot are marked by the heavy foregrounding of the base of her office desk lamp, visually book-ending the scene.
By the way, as this video points out, she has some pretty gruesome paintings: someone with a monstrous, bloodied face and another with an enormous, screaming mouth.
She hears she has received a mail and goes to check it, shot in a (20-second) long take. A heavily emphasised echo occurs later (right column), through virtually the same set-up in a (17-second) long take, when new mails, this time too from Barry, make her go to his place for a talk. The second shot starts with a better look at the screen, to signal the urgency of as many as twenty mails pleading for her to come. (A small script contrivance: why cannot the mails simply mention the reason for the urgency?)
Two situations of worry: after the first session she feels something is wrong, and after the twenty e-mails above the worry has become severe. Two different intensifying strategies are employed: in the first case she walks towards the camera, in the second one the camera tracks in.
One of the least interesting Split scenes is Dr. Fletcher’s chat with her TV-obsessed neighbour. It does not exist in isolation, however: the very small lady looks like a child compared to the psychiatrist. Her size, immature behaviour, and short attention span are reminiscent of Hedwig. (To make it easier for us to accept the notion of a child in an adult body?)
Another similarity: from an open door she beckons (in a strangely childish way) for the psychiatrist to come visit, like Hedwig signals Casey to come to his room to show off his music.
Here is a nice touch: in a shot from another angle we see stacks of unopened boxes, a comment upon the lady’s compulsive buying of items advertised on the show. Their discussion whether the patients are “less than” or “more than us” is rather ironic, since this lady is definitely “less than”.
The Skype scene, however, which on early viewings seemed an almost totally barren exposition dump, has grown in stature as a consequence of a deeper understanding of the film. Except for an establishing shot from behind her chair, all of its 11 shots consist of these fixed set-ups.

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.

Comings and goings

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.

Session 1:

This session is book-ended by very similar set-ups. It is carefully shown how he is hidden behind the railing, as if he were a stage actor coming out from behind the curtain to give a performance.
An ultra-observant first-time viewer might wonder, however, about his quite Dennis-like expression, before he breaks out in a Barry smile as he spots the psychiatrist waiting in the open door.

Session 2:

Here the start is earlier, to show us how Dennis’s yellow OCD kerchief is used to operate the door handle. Here Shyamalan wants us to have a pretty good idea that it is just an act, but we cannot be entirely sure – Barry could share Dennis’s OCD. The session ends on a very artificial, odd note: the camera looks up at Dennis coming down the stairs, with it slowly spinning. There is a growling on the soundtrack as if The Beast is making itself felt, possibly in frustration that the psychiatrist has guessed that he is really Dennis.

Session 3:

This session is shot entirely within the office. The fact that it starts with a highly self-aware, artificial device that totally breaks with the rest of the film – but it could be seen as an equally estrangeing variation of the staircase shot above – and that it is bereft of any external shot could signal a new honesty and directness, since Dennis is coming out of the closet, like he is emerging from the out-of-focus “background” of the diploma. (See also here.)

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:

The camera is slowly lowered as she climbs the stairs. She and Dennis are bound by the identical staircase, the odd-looking railing, the unusual vantage points, the central aperture-like objects, the slowness of the camera movement, and the fact that both are approaching the camera. On the other hand, the diametrically opposing camera placements and the very different colour schemes set them apart.

Session 1

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:

Touches chair with left hand, puts it in his pocket, looks up to see if Dr. Fletcher is watching, pushes in book that sticks out of bookcase with right hand, rubs that off on coat, puts that hand in pocket for good measure, corrects position of animal statuette with right hand…
…puts that in pocket, then he is so consumed by a crookedly placed object on the table that he does not care if he is observed, corrects it with left hand, puts that in pocket, then he leans on table with left hand, which later goes into pocket.
For most of the scene, Dr. Fletcher is very lively and almost flirtatious, hugely enjoying his company, indicating that she lacks quite a bit of professional distance.
When Dr. Fletcher says that she has always lived alone, he distantly answers “that must be so lonely” and adjusts the chocolate dish. He seems lost in contemplation about his own difficult situation: he is both lonely and not lonely, having the (forced) company of all his personalities. Afterwards he is hissing and shaking his hand in consternation over having forgotten himself.
Apropos touching: about the only thing Dennis does not mind touching in the film, is the bouquet of flowers laid down in honour of his absent (dead?) father, which even receives an extra caress. (The flowers are nicely matching the broad stripe on the platform.)

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.

Session 2

The stonewalling session is fittingly marked by a very limited number of set-ups which are clung to throughout:

She is always centred and probing while he is off-centre and evasive. She is sceptical and he facetious. In all 21 shots we see them in these exact framings (she is slightly closer, however, when speaking of Dennis’s embarrassing “proclivity to watch young girls dance naked”)…
…except for the second shot, lasting 22 seconds, an alternative visualisation of opposition. At the very end, he adopts a lightning-swift Taxi Driver “you talkin’ to me” pose after she has said: “I’ve developed a nose for sensing whom I’m talking to and whom I’m not.”

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.”

After “chocolate dish twice” he cannot help sending the dish an ultra-fast side glance, and he grows doubly furious with himself, for not having been able to control his OCD and for the lack of self-control in allowing that shocked, guilty look.

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.”

Soon he tries to prove he is not Dennis by sloppily eating chocolate, and deliberately having lint on it before putting it in his mouth. (The idea likely springs to his mind because it is a Lindt chocolate.)

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:

Session 3

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:

In all her 16 shots, Fletcher is invariably shown in this set-up. The framed diploma on the wall is probably the one whose reflection opens the scene.
These are the first three shots of Dennis. The first two are stationary – but for each cut the framing has become a bit tighter. As soon as she starts talking about “the incident at work” of sexual harassment – which she found in these notes – the camera begins moving slowly forward…
…until the shot ends here (bottom of left column) after 30 seconds. Right column: over the next two shots of Dennis we creep relentlessly closer, as he tries to laugh away the incident and produces a resigned look in protest when she again brings up her suspicion that he is not Barry, but Dennis…
Column by column: various points of the next three shots. He is decentred in the frame like in session 2. Exactly when she says “you can trust me” the camera stops moving (top, right) – a moment of truth has come. Immediately he leans the other way, a sign of the coming upheaval. More light falls on the side of his face. Dennis gradually becomes less concerned with keeping up the front. During the last shot (bottom, right) she states that she would never bring Kevin forward by uttering his full name. The latent threat of this is part of the reason Dennis has kept hiding.
This is the start of the crucial shot, lasting 60 seconds, where Dennis comes into the open. He is moved by her sincerity and insight, and his expression goes blank during the following passage: “I know you are someone who cares for Kevin. You are not evil to me. You were necessary.” Exactly at that last word he starts blinking away tears.
Column by column: just after the seismic shift of changing position in the chair, Dennis comes out – tellingly, accompanied by a large increase of sunlight on his shoulder – with his usual furrowed brow, and slow, deliberate speech pattern.
The last part of the transformation shot. He is suddenly centred in the frame. As he starts speaking, a mournful yet ominous music (not included on the official soundtrack) begins. It only occurs here, reserved for this extraordinary event, and is the only music in session 2 and 3 until the latter’s final moments. He says: “They keep calling us The Horde. The others, you know? Miss Patricia and I, we are ridiculed. Now, we’re not perfect, but we don’t deserve to be ridiculed. We’re all struggling. They have to admit that.” (Now that the critical moment has passed, during this speech the camera starts moving away again, almost imperceptibly.)
Now she too is moved. They shake hands, with him suddenly comfortable with touching, like with the flowers for his father. The eerie music dies out with the handshake.
Then, over the next seven shots of Kevin, intercut with the usual stationary shots of her, the camera keeps on receding, very slowly and discretely, until the scene ends with the last position above.

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.

A telling moment occurs in the middle of the camera’s return journey, when she asks: “Would you mind telling me when you first came into existence? And how you and Patricia, the other undesirable identity, became aligned?”

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.)

If we compare the start and end point of the Kevin shots, apart from the striking change in his demeanour – and his sitting position, much more balanced, and legs uncrossed – something strange has happened: they are positioned much closer to each other.

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 dysfunctional continuity. (In the fourth article we shall look at quite a few other instances of spatial trickery.)

Session 4

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:

With its distance and weirdness, the shot continues the strand of the two staircase shots. But in contrast to those situations, they are now walking together. It does not seem a good sign, however, because this session will end in disaster, and about the only times we see these corridors in the basement, they contain prisoners being escorted around.
The corridor shot motif can be extended to include broad “corridors” of terrain receding into the distance. This seems the reason for the strange high angle in the last shot of their conversation outside the gate just before, as if that was an early warning of the disaster, for which the corridor is a further omen. (More about these “external corridors” in the second article.
Dennis gets ready for the film’s longest take, of 126 seconds, by bringing Dr. Fletcher some food. After 15 seconds they start talking…
…and while camera is slowly closing in on him for the rest of the shot, he talks freely about the subject that so revolted him during session 3: his mother and how his personality came into being. He also admits to lying when he said he had never met The Beast, and the shot ends with the punch line: “The Beast is real.”

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.

Mutual relish, and with him an intense, quiet delight of a religious nature.

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:

A reaction shot to his mention of The Beast, our first look at her, and the camera will continue to look down on her: she is in over her head, confused and inferior…
…and intercut with a few reaction and dialogue shots of her, the camera continues travelling towards him. Finally she asks: “Who are you going to meet?” “Him.” Like “The Beast is real” ended the unbroken take, this second direct mention of the 24th identity puts a full stop to the conversation, as well as the forward movement.
The music stops, and with it the spell of their connection. An eerie echo that has enveloped their voices over the last few lines has also gone.

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.

He carries her to the couch of his tiny living room. This is accompanied by a 15-second string theme (included here), a dejected afterthought of the string-based music of her Skype scene and his confession just before. (Kevin was hiding under a bed in the short flashback featuring his real mother, now Kevin-as-Dennis is putting his substitute mother on top of one.)
Another articifical, now deadly embrace: after he has returned as The Beast, he breaks her back with his superhuman strength, killing the mother figure.

The art gallery

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.

The painting that spellbinds the psychiatrist is by Paul Cézanne. It is called The Bathers and hangs in Philadelphia Museum of Art.

(segment of the painting)

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:

While the camera tracks in, absolute lucidity and symmetry reign, with the benches and the dark reflection on the floor forming two circles. In addition to the diploma during the third session, and the late occurrences of reflections in the booth window and the epilogue’s mirror, this is the only time in Split that reflective surfaces are put to any effect, further setting the scene apart. (The benches too form reflective surfaces.)
Another item reflected in the floor is the painting itself, a nice indication of her immersion in the viewing process, actually being surrounded by the painting. After the cut to the opposite angle, the benches are still playing a symmetrical part. Here a curious effect seems to have been added, a blue column of reflection leading directly to her head. It appears not to be natural occurrence in the environment, since its shape and solid blueness do not correspond with the painting.
It is the same colour as the lake and sky, further enhancing our sense of her rapture.
Various stages of the viewing, the camera continuously sneaking closer.

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. The open spaces and visual clarity of the gallery and the meeting also form a contrast to the murkiness and confined spaces of the prisoners.


Part II: References

References to Unbreakable

Considering Shyamalan’s past work 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. The Cézanne painting connects to the earlier film’s importance of water.

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. (With the hindsight of Glass, the concluding film of the trilogy, its assemblage technique of clips from all three works is another reason for staying with CinemaScope for 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 Glass slightly breaks the pattern, but is 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.

Furthermore, Dennis describes The Beast: “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.” This echoes the super-villain on that cover. (I am indebted to my Facebook friend Frank Mengarelli, founder of the film web site Podcasting Them Softly, for pointing this out to me.) The name Jaguaro alludes to Kevin’s experiences at the zoo (discussed along with all animal-related issues in the second article, here).
A strange curiosity and only included as a (half-)joke: as Dennis rolls his eyes, for a moment the distortion from the surface makes them look horrific, a weird echo of the moment in the earlier film where Elijah’s eyes look giant-size and crazy.
Both villain (top) and hero (bottom) undergo transformative moments with their backs to the camera: before and after Dennis’s physical change into the Beast, and when David Dunn of Unbreakable starts trying out his powers, at the stadium and later at the railway station.
The Horde’s original plan was to abduct only two girls, and in Unbreakable there are two (younger) children kept prisoner, whom the hero saves. (I am indebted to Josh Hamm and Josh Cabrita’s excellent A Conversation about “Split” for this precise visual echo.)
Both films contain bones breaking with gruesome sound effects: when The Beast breaks Dr. Fletcher’s back, and Elijah falls down the Underground staircase.
This video points out that both films start with birthday scenes…! I can add that both are single-take scenes and weirdly filmed: the vertigo effect during the party that Casey attends (see the start and end above) makes the plants become larger in the foreground while Casey is further away, and the Unbreakable birth scene is an extended parade of estrangement effects.
The same video mentions another rather tenuous but amusing link: “That’s supposed to be like a tailored jacket, but I’m gonna hand-print it with newspaper headlines,” Dennis-posing-as-Barry says, referring back to Elijah and David’s newspaper clippings.

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!” (And, fainter, “I’m about to get very angry.” vs. “You are about to be in big trouble!”) 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; Dr. Fletcher: “Is that when you arrived in the light? Dennis: “Yeah.”)
  • “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. [EDIT 24 Jan 2019: This is wrong: As revealed in Glass, Kevin’s family do not live in Philadelphia but in Trenton, New Jersey, and the father is seen entering David’s 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.)

[EDIT 24 Jan 2019: The Kevin we see at the Trention station in Glass is about ten – which fits nicely with the arrested-development personality Hedwig, the eternal nine-year-old – so if we can trust Dennis that the abuse started at three, it must have gone on for years before Kevin’s father discovered or brought himself to do something about it, including Kevin’s DID, which we see him read about in a Glass flashback. (This is not inconceivable, due to denial or being away a lot.) This would put Kevin’s age at about 25 in Split, so we have to assume that Dr. Fletcher was inaccurate about the ten-year period he had worked at the Zoo. But in the Unbreakable stadium scene, the boy is too young and the woman too heavy-set for them to be Kevin and his mother. The plot thickens, however, since Glass occurs three weeks after Split, and Mr. Glass says it took nineteen years, after the train derailing, to create The Beast. (This places the action in Split in the future compared to its release date.) This is at odds with the lady in the diner – but her “fifteen years” was quite in line with the Split release date, at a point no one knew a third film would materialise – and possibly the 2014 date given by Kevin as the last time he was in the light. Here we ought to trust Mr. Glass’s superior mind: the diner lady misremembered, Kevin was under much longer than he thought – although this is a bit of a stretch, how much time did the hostile alters need to organise the takeover really? – and the new timeline, with a thirtyish Kevin, makes it viable to have been at the zoo for ten years.]

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 possibly a tribute to an excised character from the Unbreakable screenplay. In the actual film, the storyline of Kevin (and the abducted girls) instead morphed into the Orange Man home invasion and the imprisoned children.

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.

References to other Shyamalan films

Have a look here for how Split fits into the director’s common themes, motifs, trademarks and statistics and so on (also discussed very briefly in the first article).

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.”

That is the reason for this brief scene, which comes before the second session, where she brought up Dennis’s existence, and then the specific incident in the third session.
The Hedwig dance scene and the Stuttering Stanley situation are very similar. A protagonist is shocked by another’s uncontrolled behaviour (ecstatic dance, sudden rage), with an overawed bystander as a final comedic touch. The shot of the hamster frozen in its movement emphatically comes directly after Hedwig has turned off the music. (Casey is probably exaggerating her shock a bit though.)
A very clear reference, in duplicate. Upper row: looking up and down Dr. Fletcher’s staircase. Bottom row: Looking up and down the staircase at the birthday party that Cole attends. The red in the ornament at the top of the staircase corresponds to the red balloon.

To Signs: The walkie-talkie forms an echo to the babycall, see here. The girls are held in a basement, which figures very prominently in the earlier film.

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.

After Ivy has gone back into the forest, the same type of door alarm is sounding as when Casey tried to open the door in the abduction scene. In contrast to Casey, Ivy has “escaped”. Also, the driver of the jeep is named…Kevin.
There is also a fallen, rotten tree beside the tent that is reminiscent of the structure that is so important in The Village, a landmark telling Ivy she is near the hole, enabling her to set the trap for the monster.
The Village is the Shyamalan film with the most iconic use of doors. As seen below, Split is also obsessed with doors, but the lyricism is replaced by a more oppressive, weird and desperate mode:
This is merely a minuscule selection.

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.)

Self-generated myth: Hedwig’s drawings of The Beast. The ancient myth enunciated in the naïvely-animated prologue of Lady in the Water: a happy society that is eventually attacked by scrunts. (Here too I am indebted to Hamm and Cabrita.)
Walkie-talkies are in desperate use in both films.

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.

References to other works

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.

With terrible contrast, this supremely idyllic shot of the river is shown while the 5-year-old Casey is sexually abused by her uncle in the fifth flashback. For some reason, right from the first viewing, this author had irresistible associations to Malick’s The Tree of Life, where a river was central to the children’s life and also in an important dinosaur scene.
Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis also shot It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014) and there is at least one crystal-clear reference: a disembodied steadicam shot travelling down a basement corridor, with prominent pipes: after Dennis’s second psychiatrist session and in the earlier film as an indicator that the Follower has entered the swimming hall where the protagonists are waiting for it.

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.

Addendum: Shyamalan’s cameo scene

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.

Betty Buckley’s previous, highly memorable effort for the director.

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, standing still, love in both their eyes, at the same time, 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).

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