The author is behind an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s films. There are several articles on each: 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), Lady in the Water (2006, here and here), The Happening (2008, here, here and here), The Last Airbender (2010, here and here), After Earth (2013, here and here), Split (2016, here, here, here, and here), Glass (2019, here). All the articles can also be accessed through this overview.
Even though Split does not feature the overtly inventive formal choices that make M. Night Shyamalan‘s early work so stimulating and enigmatic, it nevertheless manages to be creative within its low-budget strictures and more conventional storytelling approach.
The first article was a general appreciation of Split at the time of release. The second and third article examined meanings and subtexts to be gleaned from selected sequences, in addition to motifs in the second and film references in the third article.
This fourth offering shall open with some fun and games to see how Shyamalan is being tricky with space. It shall then sift through an assortment of formal considerations as regards single shots: over-the shoulder shots, frontal shots, point-of-view shots, door crack shots, subjectivity and moving point-of-view shots, camera movement, stealth movements, overhead shots, and “underhead” shots. It will end with some examples of especially meaningful editing, interesting ideas in the staging, and finally some scenes with Patrica and Hedwig. (There is also an addendum with a few errors.) As usual with this analysis project, other tangential observations will be made along the way.
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.
The article contains a number of slide shows: they can be restarted from the beginning by clicking on the current image to enlarge it and then return to the article. It also contains quite a few montages of screenshots in double columns: in cases of doubt, it will always be stated whether they are to be parsed row-by-row or column-by-column.
For readers unfamiliar with the story of Split, here is a brief outline of the plot.
One highly distinctive Split feature is some extensive trickery with space and perspective. We have already briefly touched upon this. In the second article we discuss the subtly dizzying vertigo effect of the opening shot. In the third article there was the manipulation of space in the third psychiatric session, where although no character moves they are nevertheless closer to each other at the end.
Another device that undermines viewer expectation comes a little later, as Dr. Fletcher is in the corridor looking for the prisoners. First she moves along the corridor (top row below), then there is a cut to a point-of-view shot (covered by the rest of the frame grabs) that looks at the closet door, then down to realise the light is on in there (second row)…
In addition to the opening scene, there is one more vertigo shot. It conveys the physically transformative moment when The Beast is entering the picture. While Dennis is undressing with his back to the camera, it pulls away, but later also starts to zoom in…
One might think there is a mistake in the last scene of the film. It consists of two shots. The first one travels along the length of the diner, and the second one moves in the opposite direction, along the counter, where finally Bruce Willis, as David Dunn, is revealed. So why did we not see him on the way up?
This writer initially thought this to be another instance of hanky-panky, David Dunn appearing out of nowhere. But the answer is simple: the return movement does not start where we would expect, at the end of the counter where the first shot left us. It is covering the part that were hidden from view, off-screen in the top right frame grab.
There are 15 shots in Split of a duration of 30 seconds or more – see general shot statistics here and a list of long takes here – with the longest one being the first stretch of the zoom-in on Dennis in his basement conversation with Dr. Fletcher, lasting 126 seconds. This is few, however, compared to the 61 thirty-second-or-more takes of its companion film Unbreakable, where the longest one covers 229 seconds (the train seduction scene). The average shot length of Split is a paltry 5.96 compared to 18.90 for Unbreakable. And there are as many as 21 shots in the earlier film longer than the second-longest in Split (The Horde’s internal discussion in the mirror during the epilogue). In this regard Split belongs firmly in the same bracket as the formally less adventurous works of Shyamalan’s middle period: The Happening (7.16), The Last Airbender (6.80) and After Earth (4.99).
Split is simpler, more direct and more immediately immersive than the mood pieces of his golden period of 1999 to 2004. It is more eventful and less lyrical, and while still elaborate, features a narrower set of recurring motifs (discussed here in the second article). Split is doubtless marked by impeccable and precise craftsmanship, but formally one would not call it as inspired and challenging as the early films, where the camera was a character in itself, almost of equal weight to the human ones, creating eternally stimulating, formal enigmas in parallel to the story. The formal choices of Split tends to be expeditious instruments in telling a story efficiently. It is far from inelegant, however, especially seen within the film’s restricted budgetary framework.
Split features a curious mix of very basic, rather static set-ups and odd, intriguing ideas, often within these ostensibly conventional structures, as the earlier articles have shown and the current one will. (The third article examines some static scenes featuring Dr. Fletcher, for example in the skype scene, and the second and third session.) Since there is a lot more cutting than in the early films, it stands to reason that this is a quite different, more fragmented formal world to grapple with. For the filmmaker too, because there are an unusual amount of continuity mistakes and other minor problems compared to earlier works. (There were quite a few in Unbreakable however.)
One of the most basic ways of filming dialogue scenes is alternating between shots of the speaking actor from over the shoulder (OTS) of the listener. It is also perhaps the bluntest and laziest instrument in a director’s tool kit, often referred to as part of a “TV style”, a fast but mechanical way of shooting. Shyamalan is aware of this and generally shies away from it, even in the less ambitious middle period films. It is only in Split he is using it to any great extent – but still sparingly and often with a twist – so it seems prudent to have a good look at how he handles this so-common device.
In the second article we briefly discussed a conversation between Casey and Claire’s father, where it was employed in an unusual constellation. He also employs it in some Dr. Fletcher scenes, the third session and the basement conversation, but it is part of a broader scheme and combined with camera movement over a series of shots. It is also one-sided: we never see Dr. Fletcher over Dennis’s shoulder – he is invariably an object for the psychiatrist’s curiosity so we shall always see him from her perspective, nudged along in this by her physical presence in the shot.
The following situations manifest virtually the exact opposite of OTS constellations: sideways confrontations with each character having equal weight. They occur in all three Casey-Hedwig scenes:
The isolation chapter of the second article extensively mapped out how Casey was separated from the others even though sharing a cell, and also how the various rooms and even walls (of the cell) seemed to possess separate identities. The many cases, definitely including the Casey-Hedwig interactions, where characters almost never intrude on each other’s frames can be said to be part of this larger Split pattern of isolation, compartmentalisation and disconnect. (It is notable that Casey’s traumatic flashbacks contain no OTS at all.)
There is another pattern that plays with these notions. Quite a few scenes are shot with two characters opposing each other, face front to the camera which is placed between them, capturing them in exactly opposing 180 degrees angles, with cutting back and forth. (They could almost be called mutual point-of-view shots.) A prime example is the scene after Casey has been led back to the cell following the walkie-talkie altercation with Hedwig. First she confronts Patricia, and the latter then changes into Dennis:
Split is quite point-of-view-shot-driven but distinguished by many unusual instances. The second article already discussed that the unsettling opening shot could be from Dennis’s POV. It also pointed out to which degree the first cell scene is marked by Casey’s POV, but this already starts with the seven brief drug-state shots that punctuate the title sequence:
We will return at the end with the film’s most important and momentous point-of-view shot.
This is primarily another type of point-of-view shot since the girls are using a crack between the cell door and its frame to peer out into the anteroom. It is connected to the door motif, obviously, and in its drastic narrowing of the view it can be said to be an extreme variant of the corridor motif. It occurs in the Patricia introduction scene, then heavily after the first Hedwig scene and in one shot just before Casey manages to pry open the cell door. In the latter case the camera is looking into the cell, which also happens in the aftermath of the Hedwig scene:
To round off the material on point-of-view, the discussion of Split camera movement shall start with moving POV shots. In the second article we saw a couple of such subjective POV shots from Dr. Fletcher and Casey down the main corridor, one of the situations being elaborated on here. It is also applied, in a very classical, Hitchcockian fashion, in Casey’s fifth flashback, as she is approaching the spot where her uncle is pretending to be animal. The parking lot shot before the abduction is from Dennis’s POV and another memorable instance is Marcia storming towards Casey in the first cell scene.
There is a curious intermezzo in Split, a brief stretch devoted to the subjective point-of-view of Kevin’s personalities. First we shall look at how this sequence is kicked off. During this period there are a small cluster of extreme close-ups meant to emulate what it feels like when an identity is getting the light. They are also often accompanied by a peculiar use of a very shallow focus field:
Strangely, why this particular transformation occurs is never fully explained. Why should Dennis have been out of the light now after having disposed of the psychiatrist, just a moment ago? Patricia might have decided to take over for a while, to secure control of the situation, although Dennis seemed unwavering towards Dr. Fletcher. (There is a deleted scene, however, depicting Dennis entering Casey’s cell suddenly plagued by doubt and remorse, so the transformation could be a remnant of that thread, with Patricia having taken over to get him out of the building.) But that would explain how someone has locked the door – the one Casey will struggle with later – without noticing the handkerchief that Dr. Fletcher put into the locking mechanism. The meticulous Dennis would have noticed (although if the door is locked from the outside it might not be that easy to see the handkerchief).
Furthermore, Shyamalan might have intended to include a miniature sequence conveying how it feels to be an identity flitting in and out of “the light”, and lock us into that point of view. After the above close-up, we get a disembodied, moving POV shot of Dennis opening the gate and leaving:
There are few handheld shots in Split. Within the context of this article such shots are defined as having a distinctly wobbly and shaky execution. This type is used to emulate Dr. Fletcher’s dizziness as she moves to the table to get the knife as defence against The Beast, and also to denote Kevin’s highly disoriented and subjective view as his identity gets the light for the first time in the film…
There are two notable non-subjective handheld shots. The device is applied to considerable effect when the camera is approaching Kevin as he decides that Casey must kill him with the shotgun. The other one – with a duration of 39 seconds the sixth longest of the film – comes when Marcia is trying to open the door of the living room, rummaging around until she is caught by Patricia.
The most expansive stylistic figure of Split is the camera moving in a half-circle to end up on Casey, three times at important moments, in some of the longest takes of the film.
This is Casey’s last scene and what she will actually do is open. Will she notify the police about the abuse – the policewoman is clearly startled by her hesitation at the news – or will she keep quiet and exact revenge by other means? Her last shot is difficult to read, a combination of defiance and tearfulness. It is notable though that the musical theme accompanying Dennis railway transformation into The Beast has been playing since the police started searching the basement and then carried over into the car scene. This seems a pretty good indication that this is a transformational moment for Casey too. (Glass revealed that Casey indeed reported the abuse.)
Below is the last shot before the diner epilogue, and suitably for the now nearly overt Unbreakable connection, through the score, many of the earlier film’s characteristics are breaking through. It is captured in a long, 61-second take (the second longest of the film), elaborate camera movement is involved, and reflections play a most promiment role. (The two diner takes are also long: 33 and 30 seconds – look here for a list of connections to Unbreakable in the dying minutes of Split.)
The previous articles have discussed other prominent camera movements: the film’s longest take, the track-in on Dennis in his basement conversation with Dr. Fletcher; the serene track-in on the psychiatrist in the gallery; the elegant, repeated movement connected to the car mirror in the abduction scene. Important is also the broken-up movement towards and away from Dennis in the third Dr. Fletcher session.
One of the least noticed cinematic devices is what I will call stealth movements, or micro-movements: so discreet camera movements in such brief shots, let us say 3-6 seconds of duration, for no apparent narrative reason, that they cannot register consciously at all in the viewer. This must be some kind of “cinematographer’s secret” because I suspect they are ubiquitous in many modern films, and filmmakers seem fond of applying them to create a subconscious feeling of intensification.
This is not the “push-in” often used in static, often dialogue scenes to create intensification, which is kind of easy to perceive, because one is fixated on something that grows a bit larger. Neither is it the camera slowly creeping forward in long takes in Tarkovsky works like Stalker (1979) or The Sacrifice (1986), which too are rather overt devices. In images with a much less defined attention target it is much harder to notice, and I tend only to discover them when making highly extensive screenshot galleries that always include the start and end point of every shot.
Finally, it is not the same as Shyamalan’s exceedingly subtle manoeuvres in his earliest films, described here about Unbreakable, where “one gets the feeling that Shyamalan’s camera is able to react emotionally on its own, deciding to start moving”, or in this shot during the porch scene between Lucius and Ivy in The Village, which I called “an intensification of the gentlest possible magnitude”. Those movements were flourishes incorporated in much longer takes.
Let us start with Marcia trying to pick the lock of her closet prison while Dennis is away to change into The Beast. We see the outside of the door at four different times in the narrative. The first “instalment” contains four shots of the lock, interspersed with shots of Marcia inside and Claire urging her on.
The lamp post shot is also part of this regime with discreet camera movement, although a little more overt. In the abduction scene described in the second article, the camera pulling slightly away from Casey as Dennis is chloroforming the other girls is more discreet, and the first push-in on the car mirror is for subconscious consumption only.
Overhead shots have been prominent in the Shyamalan method and survive in the more conventionally shot Split, in a milder form, dictated by the cramped quarters, but often to striking effect.
Perhaps this is to underline the cramped quarters – the camera has to find odd solutions to get a good view – but this writer is hard pressed to remember any other Shyamalan film with shots from such a low vantage point as to look directly up at people or objects.
Below we have just returned from the fifth flashback. In addition to reliving a horrific moment of sexual abuse, Casey is here as powerless as her 5-year-old incarnation after her uncle took away the rifle. The little girl must also have been afraid that he would kill her, so Casey is also re-experiencing that fear of death, something that seems inevitable in her current position. The scene has no diegetic sound, but the quiet music causes a paradoxical collision in mood, its mournful tone speaking for the screaming girl:
While we are on the subject of odd angles, after Casey has been attacked by The Beast but manages to load the shotgun, the camera keels over with her as she falls to the floor:
Moving on from single-shot considerations – although there have been exceptions, this for example has also to do with editing – to more complex constructions, here are some situations where specific meanings are created by editing.
First it has to be mentioned that the dramatic build-up to the climax contains something Shyamalan has never attempted before, not only an elaborate cross-cutting scheme but as much as a six-way one: Casey, Claire, Marcia in each their prison (although the latter two are co-operating there is constant cutting between their compartments), The Beast arriving home at lightning speed, Dr. Fletcher gradually reviving, and, not least, the computer screen in the anteroom with diaries for various identities, and Barry in the driver’s seat during the cross-cutting.
Kevin Wendell Crumb is literally a wandering archive of identities. It is with the introduction of Patricia that the girls realise they are in the hands of a villain with multiple personalities. This is also the point where the viewer understands that Dr. Fletcher is not treating sex offenders – something that Dennis’s behaviour towards the girls would indicate – but DID patients. Everything in her first session with Dennis-masquerading-as-Barry and the subsequent chat with her neighbour is carefully worded so we will not learn her patients’ exact problem. Barry could be Dennis’s twin brother, or Dennis a fake identity Barry assumed carrying out the kidnapping.
Some black humour is derived from the juxtaposition of the below scenes. Dennis has chased down the escaping Claire and ordered her to remove her dirty sweater. Either he is surprised by her not wearing much underneath, or he is deliberately stripping her in a sexual manner and is then overwhelmed with desire by seeing her in her bra. Having promised Patricia not to sexually harass the girls any more, he pulls himself together, saying “I’m trying to be good” (and looking hypocritically directly into the camera). Possibly this is victim-blaming: after having stripped her, he blames her for being sexually desirable, thus exonerating himself as an abuser (a common rationalisation for sex offenders).
This chapter will deal with particularly interesting ideas that have not been covered by earlier articles and chapters. The isolation and abduction chapters of the second article and all the non-reference parts of the third article, about Dr. Fletcher and Kevin, are especially important in this respect.
The second Hedwig scene is one of the very best in Shyamalan’s filmography, typical for him stripped down, intimate and quiet. It is on the same level as the porch scene between Ivy and Lucius in The Village or the situation between Edward and Alice in the same film, where he tells her that his daughter Ivy has gone to the towns for medicine for her son.
The Split scene is dimly lit as if enveloped in an interior dusk, and with an atmospheric echo around their voices that has not existed in the cell before. Both of these Hedwig scenes start with distinctive point-of-view shots towards an open door, lopsided in the first and ethereal in the second one. While Hedwig previously sat in the doorway, he is nowhere to be seen now, but…
In a way, she has become the babysitter she talked about in the previous scene. Here she is absolutely truthful, and her demeanour wins him over, but nevertheless she is tricking him. Exactly like her uncle did to get the upper hand in the flashback – «I’ll tell your dad you’re not being nice» – she is exploiting his weaknesses. She employs the manipulative behaviour learned from her own abuser, and the knowledge of how people’s psyche can be used against them, something that helps make this scene and her predicament so bittersweet.
There is also a parallel to Dennis’s meeting of minds with Dr. Fletcher in the third sesson. In the end he achieves a trusting relationship with the psychiatrist, which is similar to Hedwig wanting to be friends with the older Casey. Also, Dennis says that The Horde have been “ridiculed” by the other alters, but it is even worse for Hedwig, who is in turn ridiculed by Patricia and Dennis for his “silly mistakes” and dominated by them.
The Rolls Royce of point-of-view shots in Split comes during the final moments between Casey and her tormentor. She has shot The Beast twice with the shotgun but to no avail. At first he is completely given to his own megalomania, bending the bars of the cage to get at her, but then something catches his attention…
When her third layer of clothes has been peeled away, The Beast realises there was only a superficial similarity between Casey and the other girls. They were all looking healthy and vital, but in heart-rending contrast to Casey’s perfect facial skin, there is a whole landscape of scars hidden on her torso.
Like there was a keyword for returning Kevin to a saner state, his full name scribbled on a piece of paper, Casey’s pain is written on her body in a language of scars, forming another keyword that can still the Beast’s brutality.
There is also something strange with the sound when Dr. Fletcher discovers Claire in her cell. We also hear Marcia’s voice but very close; it does not sound like coming from the other closet.