M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low-budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.
Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the “best intentions”, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion. This is still, after all, a movie that contrives to objectify these damsels in distress, stripping them down to their tight undies on the most spurious of motives. And then offing two of them in offhand and grisly fashion (Haley Lu Richardson’s Claire and Jessica Sula’s Marcia). Although, in true genre fashion, they have it coming because they label lead protagonist Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, of The Witch) a freak in the first scene.
Casey is there to be empowered, in as much as she is a victim of child sexual abuse, just like her abductor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), although she continues to function from the mind-set of a victim, as we see through flashbacks and observe in the final scene when her uncle (Brad William Henke) arrives to collect her.
The key to Casey’s survival is not her resilience, or inner strength. Rather, it is familiarity with a situation of abuse and captivity. Thus, her initial immobility is not down to the survival skills of predator and prey taught by her absent father (Sebastian Arcelus), but recognisable circumstances where she believes nothing she can do will extricate herself from the situation. So, while she shows smarts when dealing with a younger split personality (Hedwig), it takes her a long time to be proactive about her situation – the best she can offer is to suggest her fellow captives urinate on themselves to deflect the attention of the Dennis personality – by which time Claire and Marcia have been separated and neutralised.
One might, reasonably, assume this is all leading to a point of self-realisation and catharsis. But Split has, by the point of the climax, irretrievably established itself not as a discerning portrait of surviving abuse, but instead a bat-shit crazy horror with the kind of psychological acumen that would be right at home in De Palma’s gloriously ridiculous Dressed to Kill, just with added supernatural monsters.
As such, flashbacks to Casey’s childhood, and her uncle approaching her in the woods, are jarring (Bruce Robinson commented of his screenplay for In Dreams, which was far from executed as he intended by Neil Jordan, that “the greatest challenge… was to write a film about a paedophile and not show a child in jeopardy. That’s the essential thing. It’s a very sensitive area…”; there’s a similar sense here, watching Shyamalan incorporate such material for the most calculated of reasons). They feel tonally indiscreet, inappropriate, and because the picture is almost flippant in its disregard for genre boundaries, one gets the sense that Shyamalan got rather muddled on the way to his final destination.
Shyamalan does, after all, plan an Unbreakable/Split trilogy capper. The consequence of this is that Kevin Wendell, whom the director says was a part of the original Unbreakable screenplay but who just didn’t fit, must live to fight another day, so divesting Casey of self-actualisation. Indeed, the final shot fails to even provide a confirmation that she confessed her uncle’s abuse to the waiting police officer. We can assume she did, but what’s Shyamalan’s motivation in holding back, since he holds back pretty much nothing in any other area of the screenplay, culminating in Wendell’s Beast persona feasting on the innards of Casey’s not-really friends? Such an inconclusive choice would, I’m sure, work for a different film in a different genre. Here it feels like the punishment of the type of person who (obviously in reference to the kind of movie he thinks it’s not) would breezily cameo as Jai, Hooters Lover.
Of course, there’s something rather dubiously schematic – Hitchcockian? – about the director’s thinking in his philosophy of the Beast, whereby those who have suffered are regarded as more evolved*. He considers that here, “You are going to get killed because you are good” rather than because you had sex. But really, what’s the difference if you’re still casting actresses who are hot? I mean, that may have been a Blumhouse ruling, but Shyamalan’s hardly giving them otherwise ground-breaking material in genre terms.
And, as noted, it isn’t as if the picture is shunning tropes. The girls may be chaste (I don’t know; are they?) but they aren’t brimming with the milk of human kindness. Thus, in horror movie terms, they deserve their fates for being mean to Casey. Most of all, though, when it comes down to it, the final act disappoints because it relies on the antagonist letting the protagonist go; nothing is required of the latter other than to be acknowledged as self-harming and therefore “pure”. And, while the shared suffering of heroine and villain makes for an interesting idea, Shyamalan does nothing of consequence with it.
It’s also slightly bizarre that the criticism there has been of the picture seems to have focussed on its making villains out of those suffering from dissociative identity disorder (“DID”) rather than its dubious approach to child abuse. Particularly since there’s debate over whether DID exists per se or is an artificially-produced state brought on by the treatment of the condition (now, there’s a basis for a movie)*.
In addition, the finale is something of a disappointment because the writer-director-consummate cameo-er has made so much of the preceding passages as a compelling, witty and often funny ride, that a standard-issue monster on the loose doesn’t really cut it. You can argue that introducing a real supernatural element is a compelling twist, but it isn’t really, not when it owes so much to the Tooth Fairy’s self-styling from Red Dragon/Manhunter.
And the coda with Bruce, as Unbreakable’s David Dunn, is phenomenally geeky, but how does it serve Casey’s story? Will she feature in any significant way in the sequel? I doubt it, which goes to emphasises that the director doesn’t really give his chosen subject matter any but the most casual weight, encouraging the audience to forget his lead’s traumas as soon as he dangles a shiny, Brucey bauble before them.
These reservations are not to take anything away from Shyamalan’s consummate assuredness as a director. Nor as one with an innate understanding of structure. He’s an absolute expert at holding back and revealing, and in a movie such as this, probably the most De Palma/Hitchcock thing he’s done (even the titles are delightfully stylised), that skillset deserves all the more recognition, because it’s playing against an established yardstick and still getting props. Betty Buckley’s psychologist is straight out of “only in movies” clinicians, nursing a crackpot theory as to its antagonist’s multiple derangement (and with only a skype conference as a nod to modernity – a scene that absolutely succeeds, even though it’s so hokey it ought to be laughed off the screen). Meanwhile, M Night’s visual cues for the different McAvoy personalities are straight out of his suspense-master peers’ text books. Before he decides to steamroller over them for in-situ transformations.
The lure of much of the picture – no disservice to Taylor-Joy, who offers a performance of tremendous conviction, probably much more so than Split deserves – is McAvoy, and the scenes that truly crackle are those between him and Buckley (also great in the nuts-but-underrated The Happening), as Dr Fletcher attempts to get to the bottom of the personality presenting itself to her for analysis. McAvoy doesn’t hold back, whether it’s as a nine-year-old, a roll-necked authoritarian spinster, or sensitive fashion designer, and his willingness to go for it entirely gives the movie its must-see edge.
On the one hand, Shyamalan has succeeded in making something of a throwback homage, a picture hermetically sealed in a veritable movie-verse of eccentric psychologists and basement-dwelling psychopaths. On the other, he has come somewhat unstuck in trying to marry this to an attempt at tackling and addressing abuse survival whilst simultaneously cynically lobbing in a third ingredient of the wider Shyamala-verse (and how will Bruce fare in a proper movie, having not given a shit for so long?)
If he’d succeeded, Split might have been a minor genre classic, but as it is, it’s more impressive for its director’s visual sleight of hand and its lead actor’s free-rein performance(s) than the manner in which it resorts to his past crutch of twists and revelations.
*Addendum 21/07/22: For further on such MKUltra tools, the testimonies of Cathy O’Brien and Bryce Tailor, as well as Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill, are suggested. A key to the warped Satanic/Luciferian principles involved is that such abuse makes you stronger, closer to become a self-actualised divine being, reflected in the attitudes held by McAvoy’s alters. Elsewhere, Stranger Things’ Eleven is one has become a god (or superhero) through child trauma.