Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan’s Split reveals its cards rather cautiously — each declaration of its essential identity is followed by a swift retraction. In this lies its greatest accomplishment, for the film inherits — to the point of resemblance — the primary crisis of its lead character, a physical body inhabited by various distinct personalities. Its final manoeuvre is impressive: In a scene close to the end, our protagonist boards a train, stands in the aisle and in the darkness of the compartment, incites his transformation. He bares his chest, his veins rise to the surface, his stature seems to expand and he renders his voice guttural. A second later, he leaps off onto the tracks and takes off into the darkness — barefoot — at an unnatural, superhuman speed. The rest of the sequence allows us to view him only as an enigma — in fleeting snatches — as he scales a wall, runs across an alley, under a streetlight and finally, climbs over a tall gate. Split is one-part slasher film, one-part medical thriller, one-part acting audition tape but the sequence is its final declaration, for it is in the ultimate analysis, an origin story: the birth of a supervillain.
It begins with abduction. Three women — a sorority pack, typical victims — are incapacitated inside their car and taken, as is the norm, to an undisclosed, grungy, subterranean enclosure. They respond with desperation but then attempt to understand their captor. This proves particularly difficult, since he is not one man, but a multitude. In interspersed sequences, we see the abductor attend sessions with a sympathetic counsellor who wishes to help, but is gradually disturbed by the demands placed upon her by the patient. One of the three captives — our superheroine — is also granted a bit of an origin story: a thoroughly contrived childhood full of hunting metaphors and a molester uncle. Unlike last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Split is not given to a discussion of elaborate strategy: its cage is more existential. It is amply clear that an escape, if any, is not possible in any direction outwards; survival is possible, instead, only through self-realisation. This is typical of course of Shyamalan’s work at large, in which an external threat is merely an opportunity for the resolution of a long pending internal crisis.
The dead people in The Sixth Sense, the aliens in Signs, or the creatures in The Village — all exist to provoke the film’s lead characters to make discoveries within themselves. Split also allows him to become — alongwith Abel Ferrara and John Carpenter — part of a group of directors invested in examining how integral superhero mythology is to the day-to-day lives of Americans. It is a rare ability in Shyamalan to conflate a gift with a curse (the systemic demarcation of which allows blockbuster Hollywood films to erect heroes and villains) — the special capabilities he grants his characters often becomes a cross around their neck, a burden. This is a skill he applies in reverse too, for his antagonists are often rendered with great tenderness, vulnerable individuals whose villainy is not as much a choice as a compulsion. Shyamalan uses the final sequence of Split to register himself in the larger, pop-culture landscape through the greatest tendency of American mainstream movies: self-reflexivity. As the television broadcast announces that a new killer called “The Horde” is on the loose, a woman at a diner table tries to recall a similar name given to another, wheelchair-bound killer by the local Philadelphia media 15 or so years ago. A man named Dunn replies, “Mr Glass”.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...