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Review by William Connor Devlin
Whether you love him or hate him, you simply cannot deny that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is a singular voice, something of increasing rarity in modern American cinema. Once celebrated, there was a dark period for Shyamalan where his name elicited groans rather than excitement from the general public. In some ways, that's unfair, since many of Shyamalan's early works are truly masterful, and even some of his works that are generally derided are far better than their reputation might suggest. Then again, some of the scorn makes sense, and for a time, it felt like Shyamalan may have lost what made his filmmaking voice so appealing in the first place.
Apparently, all it took was producer Jason Blum and a small budget, because with 2015's underrated horror-comedy flick The Visit, Shyamalan was back on steadier ground. He'd found a way to leverage his trademark quirkiness to great, disconcerting effect, and it felt like the filmmaker was smartly making the move of reentering the spotlight through minimalism in both his storytelling and filmmaking. But it's with his next feature, Split, that Shyamalan not only applied the lessons he learned with The Visit but also found a way back into telling stories of great visual power and real thematic depth. It was a true return to form, and a surprising second installment in a trilogy many never expected, being a follow up to one of Shyamalan's greatest films, Unbreakable. The trilogy has concluded with the recent release of Glass, which is also further proof of Shyamalan's return to form. A review of that film will be coming to FilmFisher soon, but first, let's take a look at the middle installment in what Shyamalan is calling the Eastrail 177 Trilogy.
There are essentially two stories at work within Split, a purposeful bifurcation that alludes back to the title in many ways. The first story involves a young man with Dissociative Identity Disorder consulting a therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who offers both insight into the latent strength and complexity of DID while also genuinely trying to help her patient overcome a terrifying struggle. The second storyline, and the one that probably has the most mass appeal here, is about three young girls who are kidnapped and held hostage in an underground bunker, where they're told they will be fed to a being known as 'The Beast.' Tying both stories together is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the man with DID. Several of Kevin's twenty-three identities, Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig, have gone rogue, sealing away the other identities and working towards awakening a twenty-fourth, The Beast.
There are certainly some issues with cohesion as the film bounds between two different stories and, really, two different tones, even if part of that feels by design. While the hostage situation is certainly the more visceral of the two, and the one that allows Shyamalan to flex his thriller sensibilities to great results, it's actually the story between Dr. Fletcher and Kevin that is ultimately more interesting. Here, Split becomes a full on character study, where Shyamalan is not only exploring the intricacies of DID, but going further and creating a full discussion on the importance of pain and suffering, and how it can ultimately become the very thing that gives us extraordinary strength.
The film's exploration of pain and suffering comes in two ways (you'll notice that division and doubles are a big motif in this film, with Shyamalan really working to make this thing as thematically cohesive as he could in every which way). Firstly, he explores this through Kevin, theorizing that his DID was born as a defensive mechanism against his abusive mother. The identities are protectors and guardians, each of them abiding by their role to protect Kevin. The tricky part is that some of the identities, notably Patricia and Dennis, believe that unleashing The Beast, a superhuman monstrosity, could very well be the best way of keeping Kevin safest. With nine year-old Hedwig's help, they've taken "The Light," otherwise known as control, and have locked away the other personalities. They occasionally slip through, like Barry, who contacts Dr. Fletcher asking for help. Dennis then assumes Barry's mannerisms, and it's a great bit of acting from McAvoy, who is playing one personality pretending to be another in a very fascinating way.
Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig believe in The Beast because it is essentially Kevin embracing his persecution as a child and retaliating back at the word. He seeks to destroy the "impure." But in a clever twist, the impure are those who have not suffered. This is why he needs the girls, to feed upon them. What he doesn't account for is the second way that Shyamalan explores pain and suffering as a catharsis, and that's through hostage victim Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy). From the offset, the film makes it clear she's not like the other two girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). The camera constantly frames Casey in a way that separates her from the other girls. She's even afforded a series of flashbacks that, while tangential, explore a backstory that subtly hints that Casey's uncle has been molesting her ever since she was a small child. Things are worse now that her father is dead and her uncle is her sole guardian.
Casey makes a genuine connection with Kevin. They share the knowledge of pain and have empathy towards one another. Even though Casey wants to escape, she's much smarter about it than the other two kidnapped girls, who both make harebrained decisions to try and flee through the labyrinthine bunker, complete with piping that seems to suggest the place is a visual representation of a brain, Kevin's mind, where they've been entrapped. Maybe that's why Casey knows how to best navigate it, even without realizing it, because they've shared an experience that's made them "pure" in The Beast's eyes. At the end, Casey survives not because she's finally able to pull the trigger against her captor, which the film sets up by showing a flashback with young Casey holding her uncle at gunpoint but being unable to pull the trigger. No, she lives by showing him scars on her body: the results of self-harm, it seems. They prove to The Beast that Casey deserves to live because she has the strength to survive.
What's always struck me as beautiful about Shyamalan's best works is how humane they are. Even though Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, and The Beast are meant to be frightening, the film uses Dr. Fletcher to help us get inside Kevin's mind and understand their purpose. They're not good, but they're not entirely evil either. Shyamalan knows how to find this quiet empathy. There's also a great balance of the uncanny going on here. Every situation feels strange and usual. Split is both terrifying and funny, and very intentionally so. Shyamalan is a master of tone here, making us just as uncomfortable as the three girls trapped within that bunker. The film never feels safe, and that's what makes it an effective thriller.
What about the connections to Unbreakable? When the film was first released, it wasn't made obvious at all that it would be related. In fact, Universal worked overtime to market the film as a standalone thriller, and very effectively so. But to my great surprise, seeing the film on opening day back in 2017, the final scene not only uses the Unbreakable main theme, but even shows David Dunn (Bruce Willis), connecting Split with that film in a way that feels like a epilogue to a comic book. At first, many people felt this was a shoehorned connection, that it was done as a twist to try and shock. But repeat viewings have offered a different reading. The two films are tied together in a much more substantial way, and Glass further ties the knot.
Firstly, during the early drafts of Unbreakable, the man whom David fights to save the kidnapped family was meant to be Kevin Wendell Crumb, or at least a man with multiple personas. In order to avoid pulling focus away from David's quiet arc, Shyamalan wisely removed this aspect, but that eventually allowed for another film to break off from the source, giving us Split. Another tie is the similar theme work, about people going through horrible tragedy and torment, only to use what ails them as a superpower. Both David and Kevin suffered from a traumatic childhood event that caused their powers to emerge. For David, it was nearly drowning as a child, and for Kevin, it was both the loss of his father and the abuse he endured at the hands of his unstable mother.
There's also some iconography that acts as duality between the two films. When The Beast first emerges, it's inside a train car, drawing a parallel to the entire inciting event of Unbreakable, where David is the sole survivor of a train crash. Then there's Dr. Fletcher's death, where The Beast crushes her with his arms wrapped around her waist. David does the exact same thing to the Orange Suit Man who kidnaps the family. Both of those moments are important because they feel like rites of passage – The Beast forsaking his former life and embracing his creed to purge the world, and David finally acting on his superpowers and becoming the hero his son believes he his.
If anything acts as a marker for Shyamalan's sensibilities as a visual filmmaker, it's his emphasis on color. That's what also ties the films together in a way. In Unbreakable, David is represented by the color green, most identifiable in the green poncho he wears to disguise himself. Green is psychologically associated with life giving properties, and that works well for David, who protects life itself as a vigilante. It also ties back to his survival of not only the train crash, but a car accident where his invincibility allows him to save his wife too. Casey also wears green, but only at the end, when she's stripped of most of her clothes, which is visually representative of Casey emerging from a self-imposed cocoon, building walls of sorts because she's afraid of showing her scars. But she survives! So the green is a fitting choice, representative of her fate. For Kevin, Shyamalan chose yellow, because the color is associated with Hindu and Buddhist religious ceremonies. The Beast wears no shirt, which is visually reminiscent of some monks. Shyamalan explained that yellow was selected because he saw The Beast as an evangelist, a savior for The Broken and "pure."
Unbreakable also acts as a thesis for the Eastrail 177 Trilogy. It supposes that superheroes are born from great trauma if they can embrace that pain and turn it into a strength. But Split acts as an antithesis, offering that supervillains might also be born from that same logic. Part of what makes this film so uncomfortable is that Shyamalan forces us to follow Kevin, who is emerging as a villain as The Beast threatens to take over. Glass then acts as the synthesis here, but to say anymore would spoil that recently released film, so I'll just leave it at that. Know that the trilogy is thematically sound and deeply interconnected, and that's just not something I can say of any recent superhero films. In fact, you'd have to go back to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy to find a series of films that present a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis of thematics dealing with superheroes.
Split was important for Shyamalan. It reestablished him as a brand name worth putting money behind once again. It was a critical and commercial success, and allowed for Shyamalan to end the trilogy with Glass. But moreover, it helped him rediscover his innate ability to make films that are humane, uncanny, and ultimately thematically rich. When I think of M. Night Shyamalan, I don't think of the trademark twist or the silly dialogue. Instead, I think of stories that have surprising depth, made by a director who is trying to reach for something higher and spiritual at times. As the rest of cinema decides to play it safe and formulaic, it's good to know we still have filmmakers like Shyamalan to demand more from both genre expectations and his audience.
- Release DateJanuary 20, 2017