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'Split': a movie analysis

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(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

Director M. Night Shyamalan made his comeback in 2016 with a new psychological thriller Split—a story about a character with 23 identities about to be usurped by the 24th, known as the Beast. As the founder of a distinct genre of psychological thrillers, which involve close studies of characters with a paranormal or supernatural approach (ghosts, aliens, etc.), Shyamalan is certainly a filmmaker who deserves some respect. Yet ever since the success of his two landmark films at the turn of the century—The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000)—the director had unfortunately made a bit too many car crashes, including The Happening (2008), After Earth (2013) and, of course, the notorious The Last Airbender (2010). Hence, many critics consider Split as Shyamalan’s biggest success in the past fifteen years. With a modest budget of $9 million, the film has grossed over $169 million nationwide and earned a popular score of 7.5 on IMDB.

The story of Split definitely bears the signature of a “Night Thriller.” The trailer of the movie, which I argue is ten times better than the film itself, pretty much has explained the plot itself: James McAvoy plays a character afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID) who abducts three high school teenagers: the withdrawn and somewhat enigmatic Casey (played by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two other classmates (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula). The drama escalates with increasing intensity and bewilderment. With the emergence of every new identity, the three teenagers discover something more about their abductor and the prison. Yet, a significantly more dangerous identity, which seems to have a horrible plan for the girls, awaits them in the film’s finale.

In fact, movies about multiple personality disorder are not a novel notion at all. The German Expressionist films of the 1920s are a nightmarish extension of the distorted state of human psychology. In particular, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) has become a prototype for contemporary horrors, noirs and psychological thrillers, with a twist ending that still works for today’s audience. Decades later, Alfred Hitchcock delivered one of the most shocking plot twists in the history of cinema in Psycho (1960). In recent years, Martin Scorsese’s dreadful and ominous evocation of shuddering fear in some ways revived the German Expressionist aesthetics in Shutter Island (2012). To a great extent, Shyamalan has made considerable and creditable efforts in emulating and expounding upon the styles of his predecessors. One of the most memorable identities featured in the trailer—the chilling Miss Patricia—immediately recalls the scene in which Norman Bates plays out a full conversation between himself and his mother. Even Shyamalan himself made an obligatory cameo in the movie, just as what Hitchcock did in every of his films.

Fortunately, Split does not religiously adhere to these formalist techniques of Hitchcock or the Expressionists. A very humanistic film, Split breaks free from the conventions of a thriller, which has its effect primarily on the senses. Whereas a film like Shutter Island or 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) unfolds its drama in a claustrophobic space, Split allows its story to take place outside of its bunker cell, constantly changing its point of view between the abductor, the abductee and the concerned psychologist played by Betty Buckley. Shyamalan believes that the plot and the atmosphere should give way to character study, sending hints to the audience that Casey is the most likely to survive given that she tries to escape by trying to relate to Kevin’s personalities whereas the other two girls only rely on crawling through ventilation duct and high school karate lessons.

And one has to agree that the character study in Split is quite a compelling and convincing one. Kevin’s abusive childhood gives rise to a horde of identities that seek to protect him in different ways. However, many of these identities start to believe that they will have to be protected by a prophetic new identity called the Beast, whose physical strength exceeds human limits. Concurrently, Shyamalan narrates Casey’s equally traumatic backstory through a series of minimalist flashback. In the final confrontation between the Beast and Casey, he understands that Casey has a similarly traumatic past as he and lets her survive. “You are different from them,” he says.

Yet, Split is far from being a perfect movie. There are simply too many logical puzzles that are left to be solved and answers that are unsatisfactory. For instance, the opening abduct scene is one of the most bizarre sequence in recent years. Why does Casey stare at Kevin for whole twenty seconds instead of escaping from the car? Why does Kevin keep his three hostages in the same cell at the risk that they may “all go crazy on him?” Why not keep them in separate cells to begin with? Why is Kevin allowed to walk on the streets freely even after he is diagnosed with multiple personalities disorder? And why must he leave his home, undergo his transformation into the Beast in a train, and then run all the way back home again to kill the girls? The film has simply raised too many questions to which it cannot find satisfactory answers.

Nonetheless, it’s always good to see a director regains some of the glory of his early years. Split is a thriller worth seeing, although too high an expectation, as created by the trailer, may bring considerable disappointment.

Robin Wang is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "movie big mouth" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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