Split (2017); And Rising Above Trauma
The concept of traumatic experiences revealing themselves in tangible ways fascinates me. I am completely entranced when these palpable manifestations appear in gruesome and horrific ways in cinema. This twisted appeal began when I first watched David Cronenberg’s 1979 cult classic The Brood, followed shortly after by Adam Robitel’s Alzheimer’s horror, The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). The musings that formed during the course of those films matured once I read an amazing article on how trauma can embed itself into DNA and get passed down through genetics. The implications of this study have been grossly underplayed. I mean think about, could suppressed trauma essentially reveal itself as tumors? Or skin ailments? Perhaps its the reason that certain diseases just “run in the family.” Maybe it could be the cause of mental disorders, like dissociative personality disorder as per the theme of M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, Split.
After Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) birthday party ends, she gets an unwanted surprise and winds up kidnapped along with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and estranged classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The girls are drugged and locked away in a suspiciously immaculate, seedy room with one bathroom. As the girls scramble to think on their feet and plan their escape, they are derailed by their kidnapper, Dennis (James McAvoy), who they soon discover isn’t alone.
Though limited to one body, Dennis is one of 23 personalities that await in a queue to take over the body of Kevin. These different personas struggle to regain conscious in “the light,” but three have proven their strength. What fuels these three to stay conscious is their preparation for the arrival of the Beast, the 24th personality. The other personalities, and Kevin’s own psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), believe the 24th to be an imagined persona meant to keep the other personas in check but Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig (all McAvoy) know better. The 24th may be more than another personality and could be something super and incredible all on its own.
Horror fans who long held faith that M. Night Shyamalan would return with a knockout someday can finally let go of that breath we’ve been holding in for about 15 years. Shyamalan has finally reached his potential and returned with a fantastic mind bender that narratively tests the limits of the human brain. Split isn’t just a thriller about multiple personalities, it’s a drama about abuse and the ways in which people learn to cope with it. Through flashback scenes, we see the childhood of Casey and Kevin, seemingly unconnected separate stories that intertwine together in heartbreaking ways.
But back to Shyamalan, let’s not pretend that he is or ever was a beckon to filmmaking, although in our time I would argue he is one of the few consistent directors within the horror/thriller genre, on par with James Wan, Rob Zombie, or TI West. I think the years of backlash against Shyamalan has been rooted in viewer disappointment from once catching a glimpse of his genius early on in his career only to be led astray film after terrible film with his less than stellar motifis, plot twists, and bland storytelling. The visuals that made Unbreakable (2000) captivating despite its hokey story or the atmosphere that made The Sixth Sense (1999) so heart-stoppingly tense was missing from his later, more garbagey films.
Despite his fickle ability to tell a story, Shyamalan shows a fierce mastery of skill in Split—a companion piece to his sophomore film Unbreakable, a film about ordinary people with extraordinary talents. It’s easy to argue that the film’s focus on distress from abuse is a tad bit exploitative and some critics have poorly argued this. I can understand this argument, but I don’t find that to be prevalent in the text of the film. It does more than blame trauma for psychosis, instead it questions what if trauma can cause the brain to react in extraordinary ways? It does already, Shyamalan just ups the ante through science fiction.
Split goes above and beyond as a horror/thriller through its effective use of camera movement, sound, dramatic lighting, and a strong performance from McAvoy. But I commend Shyamalan for using Split as an uplifting bandage to those who have suffered trauma and abuse in life. It acts as a supporting hand intended to make the many of us feel impervious and invincible in spite of our pasts that are meant to make us feel weak. Split argues that something stronger, more impenetrable can emerge from within someone who has experienced trauma making our pain something that gives us an edge. For some that’s exploitation, for me it was emotional and powerful.