M. Night Shyamalan is having, for lack of a better term, a comeback. But contrary to popular consensus, this doesn’t mean he ever left.
A string of critical failures was an undeniable setback, but the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable auteur has always had a singular eye for telling visual stories. Breaking into the public eye in 1999 with his tightly written, small-scale ghost story that effortlessly sets up and pays off its personal conflicts, Shyamalan began playing in a much more ambitious storytelling sandbox as the new millennium began. Better viewed as a cinematic analyst of people’s attempts to cope with trauma and existential insecurity than as a logic-driven plot constructor, Shyamalan operates with an emotional earnestness, which proves to be his blessing and his curse. He can tell moving, beautifully shot tales with warm human interest even as he makes logic leaps in creating mythos (Signs, The Village, parts of Lady in the Water), but this trademark has made him an ill fit for more corporate (The Last Airbender) or cynical (The Happening, the other parts of Lady in the Water) projects.
But after years of trying to figure out how best to package his darker tendencies as a storyteller, Shyamalan found a fitting formula with the production company Blumhouse. The Visit played off audiences’ expectations for disposable found-footage horror to deliver a tale of abandoned children using art to mask their familial trust issues, and was mostly praised for doing so. It was a bit tonally unwieldy, but saw Shyamalan balancing the morbidity and black comedy of The Happening with performances and heart that suited him better than that film’s crass brutality did. Just over a year later, Split sees Shyamalan slickly perfecting his mean streak with profound insecurity and wounded compassion, and confirming that he can’t be laughed off the stage—this is a genre master who’s here to stay.
Split is a film that feels simultaneously perfect for Shyamalan’s filmography, yet detached from his early-2000s trademarks. Like its narrative predecessor Unbreakable, it deals with broken dual protagonists, but gives neither of them as clear a light at the end of the tunnel. It swaps long takes for quicker cuts from still shot to still shot, and trades the Spielbergian orchestral grandeur of a James Newton Howard score for a brooding mix of piano and industrial music from former post-rocker West Dylan Thordson. While the film has the same emotional attention to detail as Shyamalan’s best work, it’s a story with much more grit and psychological unease than even his scariest films. The Visit already cut it pretty close in that regard, but Split confirms an evolution in Shyamalan’s career that’s been a long time coming—he’s added an angry edge to his empathy.
The most obvious influence on Split needs little introduction—it’s Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Shyamalan himself is the first to admit this, and it wouldn’t be the first strain of Demme influence in his filmography. Lambs cinematographer Tak Fujimoto previously injected The Sixth Sense and Signs with a similar stroke of low-key realism, and Shyamalan’s quirky detours into seemingly insignificant side characters’ lives can be traced both to Demme’s older comedies (Something Wild) and his recent documentarian dramas (Rachel Getting Married has even more handicam familial tension than Shyamalan’s The Visit).
But the key similarity lies in both directors’ close-up shots of characters’ faces. The many shots of Casey staring into the camera in Split turn her analytical eyes into psychological paintings, a more world-weary sibling to Clarice Starling’s stubborn determination. There are also a considerable number of upfront exposes giving Kevin and his alters the meticulous calculation of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter. Both films refuse to let viewers look away from how the central characters are processing the horrors that surround them—if they can’t look away, why should we?
There’s an undeniable similarity between Split and the perversely intimate horror stories of Thomas Harris, but Lambs isn’t the only ‘90s serial killer thriller it resembles. After a cold open into Casey’s self-imposed isolation from classmates at a birthday party, the three “chosen girls” are abducted, and we’re thrown into a quick, abrasive title sequence resembling David Fincher’s early sequencing in Se7en, with Thordson’s score reveling in Trent Reznor-esque drone sounds. The corridors of Kevin’s labyrinthine basement even have a similar mix of yellow and shadow to the suburban hellscapes Fincher likes to craft.
It may seem odd that Shyamalan takes cues from Fincher when they’re two directors who couldn’t approach grim material any more differently. Shyamalan makes character pieces that prioritize emotional arcs even when death and doom are around the corner, while Fincher’s films often revel in detached irony that critiques every move of his privileged protagonists like Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Dunne. But in terms of characterization and craft, Split borrows from something of an emotional anomaly in Fincher’s filmography: his 2011 take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Along with Lambs, both films see steely, outcast heroines fighting boogeyman figures that pale in comparison to the institutions that oppress them while no one bats an eye.
Casey is every bit as much the heart and soul of Split as Kevin. A longtime victim of sexual abuse by her uncle, she actively seeks solitude at every turn, yelling at her teachers so they’ll send her to detention away from other students—a tendency she only reveals to Hedwig, the youngest of Kevin’s alters. She lives with the very same uncle, who emotionally blackmailed her not to tell her late father about the abuse, so what reason has Casey been given to trust authority figures? In Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander also deals with the death of a loving guardian, only to be signed off by powers that be to one who rapes her and holds financial stability over her head to discourage resistance. Shyamalan, the father of two daughters in real life, is careful to leave the childhood atrocities Casey suffered to the audience’s imagination—her first assault isn’t revealed until one of her lowest points in the film, right after she opens up to Hedwig but is caught trying to escape captivity by Patricia and the other personalities. Where Fincher shows Lisbeth’s rape in uncut form designed to make the audience feel complicit (the next scene in Dragon Tattoo is an aloof Blomkvist warm and cozy, staying inside to avoid a blizzard), Shyamalan cuts before the action takes place, and a picturesque creek fills the screen. In its own, effectively apprehensive way, Split paints a picture where the world goes on with no one to witness or listen as children are abused by the authorities they’re told to look up to.
Clarice Starling of Lambs is surrounded by male onlookers and casual misogyny in her line of law enforcement, and grieves for her own deceased father, but her comparatively less hands-on trauma grants her a shred of optimism that Lisbeth and Casey aren’t allowed the courtesy of having. But Demme’s film, like Shyamalan’s, makes it clear that a villainous antagonist with a commonly shunned psychological state is equally prone to abuse and cold shoulders. Kevin’s “basement” (really an underground section of the Philadelphia Zoo) is shot with the same curious claustrophobia as Buffalo Bill’s “dungeon,” and both captors even get disturbing dance sequences to express their tortured souls. These are both victims of childhood abuse who will cling to any identity they can find in the hopes of escaping where they came from. Buffalo Bill struggled to find his new identity after being rejected for gender reassignment surgery, being told yet again that he was not worthy of care. As Dr. Lecter explains to Starling in Lambs, “He wasn’t born a criminal. He was made one by years of systematic abuse.” Kevin developed his alternate personalities to feel protected against abuse at his mother’s hands, eventually developing a child-eating 24th personality of Biblical proportions, treated for most of the film as a horror story the other personalities recite to keep each other in check. “He believes we are extraordinary, that we don’t represent a mistake, but our potential,” Kevin (as Dennis) tells his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher in an attempt to justify the atrocities he will commit in the name of a higher being he and his alters aspire to. Both films walk on thin ice with their handling of marginalized communities, but like Demme before him, Shyamalan makes it clear that his villain’s crimes come from a place of desperation, not from how he chooses to identify.
Indeed, the true tragedy of Split is how neither Casey nor Kevin would have faced such suffering and alienation—perhaps they’d never have even met each other—in a society structured and willing to do something about the guardians who ruined their lives forever, one where the abused are treated as more than just caged zoo animals. And Split is a tragedy in the truest sense—perhaps even more so than Shyamalan’s similarly provocative Unbreakable, whose Elijah Price engages in his own misdeeds to justify his disabled existence, or The Village, which shares its depiction of a bubble society with inescapable roles maintained by a set of elders. It sees a master filmmaker finally figuring out how to convey the darkest corner of his psyche—fear for the children of the future, presumably including his own—in a way that doesn’t clash with his artistic tendencies like The Happening. Where that film engaged with gruesome killings and disconnected, stock B-movie characters in a way that shortchanged Shyamalan’s heart, this has all the formal sensitivity and class of his most universally praised work.
In the words of Amy Nicholson, Split is “somehow both weirdly PG and emotionally R.” The man who excels with child actors and spiritual awakenings has given us his Fincher film, his Thomas Harris story. This juxtaposition gives the film a unique sense of urgency over even those two twisted geniuses, as a man known for typically sentimental genre fare cuts with a sharp edge that’s as effective as it is shocking. It’s a film that will lure you in with expressive dialogue and a focus on facial emotions, but send you off with a defeated frustration at our society—one which enables monsters to beat and assault those weaker than them, sometimes creating even more “monsters” in the process.
Though Shyamalan never left, he hasn’t hit with such laser-sharp precision since his previous masterpiece, The Village. And what better time for it? As we continue to live in a culture where abusive elders, news anchors, elected officials, and law enforcement are given far more authority than regulation and inspection, Split’s brand of attentive, careful, abuse-concerned storytelling could go a long way in inspiring the change that could end those cycles. And if we can remove some of the monsters created by these vicious cycles and prevent further monster creation, we’ll have a better, clearer space to offer Split the critical evaluation it deserves, the sort of deserved admiration earned by the legendary films from which it draws its inspiration.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures