Split (2017)

Viewed January 26th

In this M. Night Shyamalan film, Kevin, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, kidnaps three girls, holding them against their will.

Spoilers ahead...

Split is the latest film inspired by high-profile cases of deranged men holding captives in underground bunkers. Other examples include: Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and the Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. (Last year's Don't Breathe plays with this idea, too, although it's not the central thrust of that film's high-precision tension machinery.) Each of these examples has its own spin on the concept. Room focuses on the emotional relationship of the captive woman and her son and, then, following their escape, expands in its second half to deal with the trauma and process of returning to normalcy. 10 Cloverfield Lane pushes the suspense of the scenario as far as the filmmakers can take it while also keeping in play a central question: is the captor actually, as he claims, just a good guy trying to save his captives from the apocalypse happening outside? And, finally, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt uses the scenario as fodder for an outrageous comedy in which the protagonist has been underground for so long that she doesn't get how any of the basic aspects of contemporary life function.

Split, too, spins the genre but (in the Shyamalan tradition) not in the way that seems to be happening for most of the film. Here's what seems to be happening: Kevin has multiple personalities, twenty-three, in fact, and, on the most basic level, it seems as though the story will detail how the three captive girls will manipulate one or more of those personalities to mount their escape. It could be exciting in the hands of a skilled filmmaker like Shyamalan, but the film suggests to its audience that it's not merely about generating cinematic tension à la Don't Breathe or 10 Cloverfield Lane. Instead, we're asked to get into these people as characters. Not in the mode of a straight drama à la Room, but in that direction. Unfortunately, though, there's not enough there and you might be wishing that he would just try to scare the shit out of you instead. For a movie about a guy with all these crazy personalities, none of them are that absorbing and James McAvoy never seems to be Kevin or any of Kevin's personalities the way another actor (say, like, Bruce Willis in Unbreakable...*wink*) might be able to truly get inside the character. For instance, Anthony Perkins in Psycho feels deeper and, thereby, scarier. He is Norman Bates, he is the mother. It's a bad sign when the protagonist has a crying scene and none of that emotion (be it sadness or just plain old craziness) is really absorbed by the audience--it just seems like more information. Likewise, the captive girl characters are never given the chance to be more than "captive girl characters," chess pieces in Shyamalan's plot, even Casey with her upsetting abuse backstory. (In fact, it's somewhat troubling that Shyamalan brings in serious themes such as child abuse only to handle them on a simplistic film fanboy level). The only star that Shyamalan allows to shine is his own. He's not telling a story about these characters, he's telling a story about his own storytelling. So in order to enjoy it, we have to view the film at a different structural level, as a node in the star director's filmography. So we go back to gray-skied, supernatural-prone Philadelphia. And we're back with his nerdy humor, his perpetual wrestling with his own knee-jerk moralism, and his sheer joy in using the camera to shape scenes & lay out the clues. We're looking for the twist. But even on those levels, things don't seem as gripping as they used to be, especially in contrast with his previous film The Visit. As Split progresses, we're getting details on Casey's traumatic childhood and the audience might be thinking that Casey's trauma has triggered her own identity disorder and that, who knows, maybe this whole time, Kevin is somehow one of her personalities, or, she's one of Kevin's personalities, or, whatever, something we assumed to be true may turn out not to be true and the link would occur between Casey and Kevin. But the plot doesn't even get that twisty. By the time the credits begin rolling, there is no twist at all. Everything we've been shown has been more-or-less straightforward. But then, bam, the twist does occur. When you realize that the entire film you've been watching is a sequel to another Shyamalan film, Unbreakable, it opens everything to a whole new world and system of viewing it, just like a good twist does. We were watching one personality and then the final reveal shows us that Split itself, as a movie, has multiple personalities and that there is a broader context. In one instant it makes you reconsider everything you just saw. The shots of Shyamalan himself appearing as a sort of A/V nerd who controls multiple cameras becomes metaphorical. Here's one view, he says; but, if you want, I can show you another. It's a meta-Shyamalan-ian twist on the idea of the twist and it's perfectly integrated with the themes built into the story. But, again, the viewer has to watch it as a movie by Shyamalan about Shyamalan in order to appreciate all of this. If only we cared a little more about what was going on with the actual characters we had just been following. "M. Night," you might say, "We need to talk about Kevin..."