Review: Genre Trauma in M. Night Shyamalan’s "Split"

In his second lower-budget thriller, Shyamalan showcases his skill for human drama and his genuine respect for film genre.
Mike Thorn


From The Sixth Sense (1999) onward, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has been popularly and critically typecast as the champion of “plot twists.” This label probably plays into the unusually intensive scrutiny undergone by his films. Specifically, the scrutiny likely stems from Shyamalan’s tendency to design narratives around the selective doling out of information, which lends itself to unusually plot-focused viewing. There is something to be said for the fact that a plot twist, on some level, deceives its viewers, leading them to believe something before abruptly unfurling that belief. Reviewing his latest film Split, I would like to mostly dispense with this emphasis on “twists.” By stressing one specific element of his storytelling process, one runs the risk of neglecting to address his commitment to storytelling itself. That is, it’s worth noting that Shyamalan sees cathartic possibilities (often profoundly affirming ones) embedded in the very notion of story. Take, for example, The Sixth Sense—the film doesn’t “work” simply because it effectively “dupes” its viewers; rather, its “twist” operates as a psychological and emotional revelation that completes the film’s thematic thrust. Repeat viewings reveal a profound sadness within the film, seeing as it gives us a child whose only friend is a ghost, and a man who’s so absent in his marriage that he has come to haunt rather than embody.

Certainly Shyamalan’s career-long focus on narrative makes its way into Split, which is perhaps his most confrontational and ambitious work to date. At first glance, the plot appears almost deviously simple. Within ten minutes, the film shows Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnapping three young women (Claire, played by Haley Lu Richardson, Marcia, played by Jessica Sula, and outsider Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy). The story’s schematic is laid out quickly: these women want to escape, and Kevin wants to keep them contained for initially unknown reasons. As the plot continues, it gradually reveals background information pertaining both to Kevin and Casey, centralizing their roles. Details surrounding Kevin, who suffers from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), unfold largely through therapy sessions conducted by Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Occasionally, the film veers into asides with Fletcher to substantiate the possibility that Kevin’s ominous twenty-fourth personality, “the beast,” might reveal itself at any moment. Casey is also afforded background information through flashbacks, which come to reveal a traumatic episode in her childhood that has led to her status as a social outsider.

Playing out this story, Split explores possibilities inherent to the narrative design of “psychological horror,” studying the ways in which that genre’s patterns offer insights into human behavior. In doing so, the film also undoes assumptions about “normal” versus “abnormal” psychology, devoting much of its runtime to an assessment of what makes one “different,” and how society’s practices of marginalization cause immense damage. These questions work themselves out through the methodical exploration of Kevin, yes, but also through the devastating revelations pertaining to Casey. Most interesting, perhaps, is the way in which Split concerns itself with the notion of victimhood as characterized and typified by standard predator-prey horror film scenarios.  

The film initially appears to pit antagonist Kevin against protagonist Casey and friends. Such a set-up neatly organizes moral commitments, and situates a potentially problematic division of mental disability versus mental well-being. However, as the narrative proceeds, it reveals trauma itself as the antagonist; said trauma finds its vessel in violence perpetrated by adults against children. We learn that Casey is also probably suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and her eventual confrontation with Kevin plays out as devastating reconciliation rather than suspenseful combat. The execution of this resolution is maybe the truest revelation or “twist” in the film, subverting as it does the customary Manichean commitments of standard genre fare. It’s interesting to note that this emphasis on childhood trauma reveals a career-long focus for Shyamalan; looking back, I can identify the same thematic undercurrent in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (2000) Signs (2002), The Village (2004), After Earth (2013), and The Visit (2015). Split’s primary concern, then, is not the connection from “Event A” to “Event B” (although Shyamalan demonstrates a keen attentiveness to narrative craft); rather, the film’s focus is on the ways in which genre can contend with painful material, and offer affirming reinterpretations of tropes. 

The film certainly encourages a study of the relationship between affect and storytelling, but also stunning are Shyamalan's faculties as a visual director. Seeing as he commits to these complex valences of violence and trauma, it’s fascinating to note how Split deals with confined spaces. Although sympathy takes center-stage, the film doesn’t betray its genre trappings: rather, Split acts as the director’s most disciplined exercise in Hitchcockian technique. Tension plays out often in spatial relations between the young women and the door leading to their potential escape, with Kevin’s multiple personas positioned strategically elsewhere within the frame or scene. Indeed, the staging works toward maintaining suspense, but the film also conveys a lot of its psychological and thematic meaning through lighting, camera placement, precisely timed cuts, and some of the most careful and organically incorporated mise en scène in the director's career. While Shyamalan has consistently demonstrated such aesthetic focus, it is worth noting that after The Visit, Split is the director’s second collaboration with producer Jason Blum, who specializes in low-budget horror; both The Visit and Split find the auteur working on a smaller scale, which is especially notable after his two consecutive special effects epics (The Last Airbender and After Earth). Indeed, Split finds Shyamalan in a formally invigorated mode, likely due in no small part to his collaborations with a younger crew (take, for example, director of photography Mike Gioulakis, who has shot recent independent productions such as David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows and Mike Ott’s Lake Los Angeles).

Considering both the narrative subversion and visual acuteness detailed above, the film’s climactic scene warrants discussion: the sequence finds Kevin (now embodying his “beast” persona), scuttling spider-like through a dimly lit tunnel toward Casey. The scene incorporates the horror genre’s visual language—Kevin has already committed acts of extreme violence, and he smashes lightbulbs as he advances on his prey. Both the increasing darkness, and the intercut close-ups of Casey’s terrified face, work toward a mounting sense of dread. Worth noting here is that throughout the film, Kevin has coerced his three captors to remove their garments, piece by piece. Initially, this appears to be Shyamalan's confrontation with the horror genre's clichéd "unclothing" of female victims; until this moment, the director’s confrontation wavers between exploitation (even despite subversive intent, he is still gazing at young women’s bodies), and coy self-awareness. However, in the episode at hand, those possibilities of exploitation disappear given the narrative significance of being “revealed.” That is, the pursued woman experiences her revelation and a forced contact with her own trauma at the exact moment that her own shirt is torn, revealing her abuse-induced scars. So too does Kevin appear shirtless here, his naked body scarred and painfully dehumanized. Shyamalan pits these two characters on opposite ends of jail cell-like bars, shooting the man in close-up as he pushes through like an animal uncaged. This scene delves into the impact of trauma, depicting two similarly wounded and socially ostracized people. The imagery finds them connected metaphorically, but divided physically by acts of violence.

The fact that this scene affords both pursuer and pursued with such empathy speaks to Shyamalan’s proclivity for human drama, and to his genuine respect for genre. This is a rare picture, working both as a tightly-designed work of horror, while also causing its audience to reconsider customary notions of victimization. And yes, there is a sort of twist ending to finish it all off, which is appropriately surprising and bold. I don’t want to reduce this singular auteur to one element of storytelling, though; M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most consistently interesting auteurs in contemporary American cinema. Split is further evidence.

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