A man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, three kidnapped girls (of whom only one stands out as empathetic, yet crafty), a plot filled with tension… but what actually caught my eye in Split was the serpentine staircase leading to a therapist’s office. The supposedly inconsequential flight of stairs looms in the frame, and, in a shot or two (which last for quite a few seconds), it appears to symbolise something larger. Like the (debatable) “antagonist” who walks down these steps, we, the viewers, simultaneously descend into the depths of his mind. The unknown destination is ominous, dark and deep, and we dread to think of what we’ll uncover about this stranger.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is the second instalment in the Unbreakable series; however, it would have done brilliantly even as an independent film. Marketed as the first solo supervillain origin story (in order to satisfy Shyamalan’s newly found fixation with creating superhuman tales as love children of contemporary preternatural and science fiction themes), it instead pays homage to the psychological-thriller genre of films. The plot revolves around a man with twenty-four different personalities who kidnaps three girls for reasons revealed later in the film. Split is the product of very good writing, but it actually appealed to the masses due to the presence of important, latent motifs surrounding people who are “broken”.
James McAvoy, in what I would love to call a career-defining performance, delivers a brilliant portrayal of Kevin Crumb, a person with several diverse alter egos. What particularly stands out about this depiction is how he effectively shifts from one persona to another, while reminding us all the while that he is, in the end, Kevin Wendell Crumb, somebody who is “broken”. This is achieved when one notices how the personalities do overlap each other in some ways. The dominant personality of Barry appears slightly similar to that of Patricia. There is a point in the film when one of the personalities, Dennis, starts behaving like Barry to avoid suspicion from Kevin’s therapist. Each identity is distinct while retaining its source in a common human.
The personality that I found the most interesting was that of Hedwig, a child. It gives us some insight into how Kevin might have been during his innocent youth. When Hedwig awkwardly kisses one of the kidnapped girls (a callow kid’s desire for physical intimacy; it almost seemed like an attempt to prove to himself that he was capable of love and physical affection after the trauma he had undergone) he declares that he has made her “pregnant”. It is a nice comic touch by Shyamalan and provides a renewed perspective regarding our supposed antagonist. Hedwig represents that part of Kevin that is still in denial of the abuse he faced. He represents a time when Kevin could not fully comprehend the suffering he was enduring.
This is a good opportunity to discuss three other prominent personalities who are part of Kevin. The first is Barry, the erstwhile dominant identity, who seems to be the only one out of all the personalities pursuing a distinguished profession: fashion design. He represents the unfulfilled dreams of Kevin’s regular self. The second one is the stoic Dennis who takes charge later on. He has OCD and is constantly inclined to clean the smallest of stains. He appears to characterise the traumatised version of Kevin who wishes to cleanse himself of all his physical and mental ‘stains’, and those belonging to the so-called superior humans as well. His tendency to molest girls seems to stem from Kevin’s underlying hatred of his mother. Then there is Patricia, the calmer one, who seems to have made peace with all the chaos in Kevin’s life, something he never could achieve himself.
Kevin’s personalities are definitely unique and intelligent choices by Shyamalan, to showcase his contrasting facets. This opens our eyes to his pleas to be like one of us “regular” humans – because he is just like us. The only difference is that we get to change our demeanour like a mask, but for Kevin, his masks have become his face. And to understand this, Shyamalan adds a clever choice of a “hero” in the story. Anya Taylor-Joy plays one of the kidnapped girls, Casey, and her portrayal does give her traumatised character a lot of depth. Every time she cries, screams, or genuinely seeks to empathise with Kevin, we feel for her. She discovers a kindred spirit: her kidnapper, who is “broken” like her. In the climax, when she faces the twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, it should be noted that she is barely clothed. Her clothes symbolise the various layers she had created to hide her scarred self, but when she faces Kevin at his worst, she unintentionally “reveals” herself to him as well. It is a moment when they both realise that they are one and the same. In fact, Casey discovers a renewed resilience and strength after meeting him; his final words to her empower her to face her troubles head-on (it is ironic when she has no choice but to return to her perverted uncle right after her experience with another “animal” of sorts; when we see her eyes after she is given that news, it seems like she would rather have, in a fleeting moment of despair, opted to stay with the latter). Somehow, she ultimately sees a tiny ray of hope through a crack in the dark walls she had erected for herself.
While Split has been criticised for stigmatising people suffering from mental ill-health, I disagree a bit. Yes, Shyamalan appears to be in love with his novel superhuman theories (he does give a realistic and ruminative twist to this), but he tries to show another outlook via Kevin’s therapist and Casey. But that is no excuse to ignore how people with DID have been inaccurately portrayed as violent, such as in Hitchcock’s Psycho, or in the Tamil film Anniyan.
However, Split does pose some valid questions. Is “broken” the real pure (covertly criticising Casey’s “normal” friends)? Are today’s “victims” tomorrow’s evolved species, who can overthrow us, the oppressive, narrow-minded, “normal” humans? Even the contrast between Kevin embracing his inner “Beast”, and Casey’s uncle wishing to “behave like animals” (an allusion to how he sexually abused her) provides food for thought. Split is an unconventional thriller that uses great acting, terrifying music, well-written scenes and twists, and zero horror clichés to drive its point home.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.