Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

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Preposterous in all of the best ways, and some of the worst, the latest film from once-overhyped, now underrated auteur M. Night Shyamalan is as confounding as any film Hollywood is likely to produce this year. Ostensibly a horror film of the ‘girls trapped in a basement by a madman’ subgenre, like last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, it somehow ends up being a rape-revenge superhero movie, like a DC Comics version of Elle. With a barely taped together plot, a streak of goofy black comedy and a cheap, exploitative perspective on real-life trauma, the movie is clearly the work of some kind of a lunatic. But what a lunatic!

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Right from the beginning, the film is deeply unsettling. Only a mad genius like Shyamalan would open a movie with a track-zoom, and not the quick, splashy disorientation of that movement’s use in Vertigo or Jaws, but a slow push-in/zoom-out on a lone girl, The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy, sitting in a suburban mall food-court. The uncanny motion sets up the girl as a person apart, someone for whom reality is slightly bent, and the subsequent sequence (she stands far away, isolated against a blank window, while two of her friends talk about how weird she is) further marks her as different. We’re locked into her perspective throughout the first third or so of the movie, through the three girls abduction by James McAvoy (he knocks out the parent with them and joins the girls in their car: spraying the two in the back seat with a knockout gas and appearing not to notice Taylor-Joy in the shotgun seat for several moments after, as she sits in shocked horror, like she’s a barely visible person). Once the girls wake up in the basement, the camera’s unease continues, as if unable to adjust to this new reality, or addled by the effects of the debilitating spray. But crucially, Shyamalan doesn’t go for the obvious move in fuzzying up the image: everything is crystal clear, it’s just framed a little bit off, as if a patch of paint on a wall is as interesting as the desperate teenager attempting to reason her way out of this insane trap. Eventually, as the scope of their predicament and the nature of the man who has trapped them becomes clear, the camera will snap to attention, with frontal close-ups of heroines and villain filling the widescreen frame. So too our point-of-view expands, following the other two girls in attempted escapes and even leaving the basement altogether to meet Betty Buckley, playing McAvoy’s therapist.

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Through Buckley we learn the nature of McAvoy’s condition and his motivation (obligatory “If you care about spoilers, don’t read a review of an M. Night Shyamalan movie” statement here). He suffers from what we used to call Multiple-Personality Disorder, now labelled Dissociative Identity Disorder, in which trauma in childhood shattered his psyche into various personalities. Buckley’s theory is that the human brain is powerful enough that it can create tangible physical changes in the body to match the nature of the personality: one personality can be diabetic, or allergic to strawberries, or have the strength of ten men, while the others remain entirely normal. This naturally leads to the logical conclusion: trauma causes split personality which causes super-powers. Two of the personalities take control and decide that the way to unlock McAvoy’s full superhuman power is by establishing a new personality, which can only be triggered by eating happy teen girls, hence the kidnapping.

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This is taking Elle‘s response to trauma one step further: instead of simply refusing to allow another human being to have any power over oneself through sheer ruthless force of will, as Isabelle Huppert does in Paul Verhoeven’s film, Shyamalan seems to suggest that abuse is a kind of good, as the next step in human evolution; that trauma which doesn’t kill us literally makes us stronger. This is not a new idea, many superhero, and supervillain, origin stories are sourced in an unimaginable childhood trauma (think Batman witnessing his parents’ murder), but in taking the long way around to get to his story’s comic book elements, in making a psychological horror film about the ramifications of abuse, Shyamalan grounds his fantastical story in an comfortable level of reality. Rather than add dark and gritty elements to a silly story, as in the 21st century Batman films, he layers silly elements on top of a dark and naturalistic film. The resulting incongruity is simultaneously hilarious and deeply discomfiting. Twenty-four hours after walking out of the theatre, I honestly have no idea if the movie is any good or not. It’s one of the most baffling films from one of the most idiosyncratic and fascinating directors Hollywood has produced over the past few decades.

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