Split shouldn’t work. For most of its running time it continually threatens not to. M Night Shyamalan’s latest film has been criticised, rightly, for a ludicrously toxic approach to mental health issues and a tick list of the absolute worst final girl clichés. It deserves every single one of those criticisms.
Split is the most interesting mainstream movie I’ve seen so far this year. It absolutely refuses to compromise its central idea, is acutely aware of its faults and in the closing ten minutes pulls off something so utterly audacious that I almost applauded. So, let’s take a look at what doesn’t work, why the ending contextualises if not excuses that, and why the final half hour works so well. There will, from here on out, be…
Consider yourself warned.
First off, let’s look at how the film approaches mental illness. The short answer is “implausibly”. The longer answer is “implausibly and pretty offensively”. The idea presented here is that Kevin,McAvoy’s character, suffers from dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 separate personalities and with the help of Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has found stable employment and ways to manage his condition. A big part of this is appointing a leader amongst the personalities, a charming and probably gay New York fashion designer called Barry. Every week, Dennis gets his turn in the spotlight and goes to Doctor Fletcher for their appointment.
Then one night, Barry emails asking for an urgent appointment. The following day Barry insists everything is fine.
The following night, another email.
Doctor Fletcher’s position in the movie is vital; she’s the mouthpiece for Shyamalan’s view of the illness. Her ideas are fascinating and, in many ways, positive; that patients with DID and other conditions have been shattered by their trauma and healed not just differently but better. She contends that mental health conditions are an evolutionary crucible for humanity. As she finds out to her cost later in the movie, at least two of Kevin’s personalities agree with her.
This idea, the simultaneous acknowledgement of the horror of mental illness and the possibility of it being a doorway to something better, is what the film orbits. It is, as Andrew Todd discusses on BirthMoviesDeath, a profoundly difficult idea to talk about let alone parse. As Todd says, Shyamalan is both romanticising and demonising mental trauma. The demonisation comes from Kevin’s transformation into a cannibalistic hive mind. The romanticising comes from both the idea that mental illness is the door to evolution and that old Hemingway quote:
“Life breaks us all. We heal and sometimes we are stronger in the broken places.”
Ernest would love this movie. There’s not enough boxing and big game hunting for his tastes, I suspect, but the idea of trauma as a crucible? Front and centre.
This is where the film stands its ground on mental health both as a condition and a fictional component. There’s lip service paid to Doctor Fletcher’s work being an outlier, especially in a cack-handed scene with one of her neighbours, but she’s still vindicated, albeit in death. Trauma is crucible, trauma is evolution and trauma – and the strength it brings – is what ultimately saves heroine Casey.
I am honestly not sure how to think about this element of the movie. Largely because I set my back against, “That which does not kill you” through nightmarish periods of my teens and ’20s. When you’re in a sustained period of trauma, it’s a useful rock to feel behind you. The idea not just of strength, but of strength you get from the thing that’s hurting you is the sort of bloody-toothed victory you don’t get nearly enough of in times like that and it makes sense for Kevin’s personalities to feel the same way. However, it still renders a flotilla of conditions down into fodder for a horror movie in a way that’s dangerously reductive. This won’t do for the mentally ill what Jaws did for sharks but it’s not exactly going to help either.
Then there’s the way the film deals with women and people of colour. Let’s look at people of colour first. Trust me it won’t take long. There are three: one is a comic relief idiot whose idiocy indirectly gets two people killed; one is one of the kidnapped girls who has precisely no agency and spends most of the film in the least clothes of all three lead girls; the third is Shyamalan himself, in his usual Hitchcockian cameo as a video tech. He’s quite fun too, in that way M Night always is when he shows up in his own films. The other two? There’s not enough material there too register as offensive let alone anything worthwhile.
Now the women. The three female leads are a group of teenagers that Kevin kidnaps to be fed to the Beast, his final personality who requires the flesh of the impure to fully manifest.
Yep. You read that right.
One, Marcia, is there to lose progressive amounts of clothes, fail to escape and die. The second, Clare (Haley Lu Richardson, one of the best parts of the excellent The Edge Of Seventeen), is privileged, smart, driven and for a while looks like she’ll be the group leader before her own failed escape attempt. The third, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch and Morgan), is quiet, reserved and a survivor. What becomes clear through a series of flashbacks is that Casey was systematically abused by her Uncle and her bad school record, long shirts and self harm are not only symptoms of that but ultimately what saves her from the Beast.
There are two issues to discuss here. The first is the girls themselves and how the film manages to narrowly miss doing something really interesting with them. Around this time last year, 10 Cloverfield Lane neatly showed just what you can do with subversions of the Final Girl horror movie tropes. Split starts and, maybe, finishes in a similar place but literally sacrifices Marcia and Clare along the way. Each makes a failed escape attempt, each is exiled too a different room, each tries too escape, each fails, each dies mostly off camera. It’s that simple and that cruel.
Now on the one hand this is absolutely what Shyamalan is aiming for; Split sits comfortably next to the Saw franchise and some Blumhouse movies as an example of “bad things happen to people in captivity” movies. The tone is very deliberate and very, very harsh; we get to like all three girls. We suspect most of them will get out okay. We are proved wrong.
But on the other hand, this feels like the romanticisation of suffering taken to positively Cenobitic levels. It’s all well and good basing a movie’s philosophy on, “Thieves get rich and saints get shot and God don’t answer prayers a lot” but you have to give people at least the illusion of light at the end of the tunnel. Here the best Shyamalan can do is a series of tiny almost victories for Casey and a hint that, at the end, she may be empowered enough to finally confront and stop what’s clearly ongoing abuse.
Die Hard To Watch
A lot of this stuff is hard to sit through, for three reasons. The first is it’s meant to be; Shyamalan’s close-ups, static cameras and careful use of music are perfect tools for horror movies and this is a well-tuned engine of a horror movie. The second is because it’s a well-tuned engine with too many familiar parts. So much so, in fact, that this may be the first time in recent genre history where swapping the leads’ genders from female to male would make the movie more interesting.
And thirdly because everyone has scars and a film telling you your scars are your tools to survive should be life-affirming. Instead, it just reminds Casey, and by extension the viewer, of where they came from. As Richard Whitaker, in the other half of that must-read BirthMoviesDeath article says, Shyamalan’s compassion as a filmmaker seems to have been the price for his critical revival. No one leaves this movie intact or remotely happy with the possible exception of The Horde, newly united under the leadership of The Beast personality. Even then, that unity has clearly come at the cost of other, kinder personalities such as Kevin himself or Barry. The Beast has arrived, Clare and Marcia are dead, Casey is either about to be sent to care or back to her abusive guardian and Doctor Fletcher is dead if vindicated. In fact, if the film has a final cheap shot it’s her arc; a brilliant, compassionate scientist whose intellect is sacrificed for the sake of the script and whose life is sacrificed so we can understand how high the stakes are.
Let’s Twist Again…
There is a moment towards the end of the film where The Horde is talking to himself in a shattered window. Each facet is a different personality and it gives McAvoy one last chance to show off his accent range even as we realise something…
The Horde is monologuing.
And when you realise that, two names come into focus; Kevin Wendell Crumb, Kevin’s own name. And Casey’s full name, Casey Cook.
Like Reed Richards, like Billy Batson, like Kate Kane.
Like David Dunn.
And then you notice the music that’s playing under that scene.
That’s the music that plays under arguably the most important scene in Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s second and arguably best movie. It sees David Dunn finally accept his abilities, walk into a railway station and read the people around him, looking for the criminals he knows he’s been born to defend people against.
And then, just in case you haven’t picked it up yet, we see David Dunn, sitting in a diner, watching a report on The Horde.
Split is an Unbreakable sequel. And while that doesn’t excuse anything, it explains EVERYTHING.
As Evan Narcisse has discussed in detail, this is a super villain origin story. That’s why the body count, why the total lack of luck for the victims. Because this isn’t a story about a hero. It’s a story about the horrific circumstances that create survivors, and, to some extent, decide whether they’ll be a hero or a villain for them. It even contextualises the film’s dangerously over simplified view of DID.
This is the same world where David Dunn went his whole life without discovering he was functionally unkillable. This is a world defined by a soft, quiet biological singularity where every now and then someone either wakes up or is created by their circumstances. In arguably the most fumbled pass of the entire movie, even the existence of The Beast is explained as not being Kevin’s fault. His abilities are based on the animals Kevin encountered every day at the Zoo where he worked, leading to a personality created from his environment instead of one created to exist within that environment. Kevin’s greatest tragedy is that his survival is what dooms him. Which, for a film that fetishises intellectual and emotional damage like this, is a brave note to strike and one that should have been heard much louder.
To be absolutely clear, nothing in that last half hour excuses the dangerously reductive elements of Split. This is still a schlocky horror movie shot with unusual seriousness, still a film that even as it explains its fictional viewpoint, hides that viewpoint at the far end of the movie. Its view of mental illness is fiction, and the locking of this movie to Unbreakable proves that. But the structure of the film means that there has to be a twist, which means it comes last, which means the damage has already been done.
The reasons are all on the screen but it still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, even as you admire the audacity of the final scenes. Shyamalan is clearly back, clearly firing on all cylinders and clearly not done with The Horde, Casey Cook and David Dunn. Here’s hoping his next movie is this polished but views them all with more compassion. They, and we, deserve it.
Article by Alasdair Stuart