Released barely a year after The Visit, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split has all the same crazy, tipsy, balls-to-the wall inanity that made his return to psychological thrillers so enjoyable. In this case, however, it’s even more pronounced, thanks to a delightfully over-the-top performance from James McAvoy as “Kevin,” an individual with dissociative identity disorder – DID – who kidnaps a trio of girls and imprisons them in an underground bunker. There, he gradually introduces them to a number of his personalities – he has twenty-three in total – all of whom intimate that a twenty-fourth personality – nicknamed “the beast’ – will soon emerge and confront the girls with their fate. Interspersed with Kevin’s trips to see his counsellor, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley, most of the action is confined to this amorphous underground space, where the girls make every effort to manipulate and thwart Kevin’s most dominant personalities.
That said, the focus of the film is not really on the girls themselves, but on Kevin’s various personalities, who are effectively the main characters. So distinct are these personalities and so clear is the hierarchy amongst them that McAvoy pretty much carries the film single-handedly. Given that these personalities emerged as the result of a childhood trauma not dissimilar to the one he is now enacting upon the girls, and that their hierarchy has been constructed in such a way as to protect his childhood self, there’s a sense in which the entire abduction narrative is displaced by Kevin’s own backstory, as his constellation of personalities allows him to play the role of perpetrator and victim at once. As it gradually emerges that one of the girls – Casey (Anna Taylor-Cooke) – is herself the victim of abuse, she naturally becomes a main character in a different kind of way, but for the most part the girls feel somewhat secondary, a way of emphasising our disorientation in the face of Kevin’s transformations rather than orienting us to plot, atmosphere or space in any kind of traditional way.
If anything, the girls’ efforts to break free of their underground prison just emphasises how spatially diffuse and disorienting Shyamalan’s vision manages to be, since while we spend nearly the entire film in their room and adjoining corridors we are never allowed to get any clear sense of its parameters or dimensions, let alone the wider environment outside. Part of the eeriness of Split comes from continually failing to ground ourselves in this way, as Shyamalan’s proclivity for dolly zooms imbues every space with a slightly anamorphic, distorted quality, as if to capture Kevin’s state of mind when he is transitioning from one personality into another. That tends to undermine anything like traditional continuity editing, as Shyamalan opts for cuts that are too fluid to be jump-cuts but too continuous to feel like a proper break either, producing a continual recalibration of perspective that never exactly orients us to the space but fixates on the same things from a slightly different vantage point, in a series of minute shifts in focus that never quite add up to a conventional spatial awareness.
In other words, Split never quite stabilises or settles upon a particular spatial sensibility but construes space as an inherently transitional entity, a field that registers all the different perspectives and perceptions struggling to colonise it. Just as the blankness of Kevin’s face – especially without hair – works perfectly to suggest all the different personalities struggling, subliminally, to take control of it, so the blank anonymity of his underground lair works perfectly to capture this perceptual struggle, as the relative lack of decor forces each of his personalities to mark it even more emphatically with their bodily presence and perception. From the very outset, then, there is something peculiarly embodied and visceral about Kevin’s different personalities, and the film goes to some length to emphasise DID as a physiological as much as a psychological condition, a matter of different people as much as different personalities. Indeed, Dr. Fletcher has staked her career upon this idea that DID doesn’t simply involve multiple personalities but multiple physiologies, enjoining her colleagues to recognise that people with DID might easily inhabit a body or bodies different from those that we see.
That’s certainly the case with Kevin, who seems to inhabit a completely discrete body with each personality. One of them has diabetes, one of them has a low IQ, one of them has the strength of an eight-year old, but all of them are linked by a kind of queer potentiality that makes Split feel like a brilliant riff on the process of becoming transgender – and of “transitioning” as a more general state of mind – and the particular fears and anxieties it engenders in turn. After all, the main personalities we see are a matronly older woman named Miss Patricia, a lisping eight year old named Hedwig, and an effete fashion designer named Barry, who is the guardian of all the other personalities and the main front that Kevin presents to his therapist and to the public at large. As these identities are paraded before the girls, the film takes on a lurid vaudevillian quality that recalls the more anarchic and theatrical fringes of the Marvel and DC franchises that have evolved over the last few years. As in the Universal horror cycle, that also tends to congeal psychiatric discourse into so much high camp, as an apparently endless set of disquisitions from Dr. Fletcher turns the sheer process of discussion and diagnosis into a hysterical act of the highest order.
While these discussions are focused on the physiological symptoms of DID, Dr. Fletcher ultimately has an even more radical theory – that individuals experiencing DID “are what they believe they are” and can actually alter their body chemistry and physiology to suit their various personalities. Accordingly, when Kevin’s personalities anticipate the arrival of the beast, it is not merely the arrival of a new personality but a whole new superhuman body, an apocalyptic singularity that signals the consummation and annihilation of the human, and whatever remains of the human within Kevin. In a weird kind of way, that turns Split into a superhero movie, recalling McAvoy’s role in the X-Men franchise as he edges ever close to this “beast” who – appropriately – doesn’t turn out to be a monster in any traditional sense but just a superpowered human body. With the appearance of David Dunn, Bruce Willis’ character from Unbreakable, at the very end, the superhero touch seems complete, while there’s also a suggestion that Kevin has managed to impart some of his strategies for coping with abuse to Casey as well – the only girl who survives – who returns to her abusive situation at the end with a new grasp on the capacity of the human mind to transcend adversity.
Between them, then, Kevin, Casey and David suggest the beginning of what might be a new superhero franchise from M. Night Shyamalan. What makes this so fascinating to consider, however, is the way in which Split joins the dots between superhero transitioning (such a precious spectacle to conservative America) and gender transitioning (such a terrifying spectacle to conservative America). In doing so, he beautifully captures one of the most deep-seated fears of trans people – that they might somehow possess the superhuman or supernatural capacity to change their own bodies – as well as the accompanying terror that regular people might somehow be left behind by those who are transitioning or have transitioned. Like radical trans artists along the lines of Elysia Crampton and Laura Jane Grace, Split presents transitioning as a kind of post-perceptual affect, or augmented perception, a harbinger of the post-human that takes the body itself as an apocalyptic horizon (“the beast…believes that the time of ordinary humanity is over.”). That doesn’t merely mean a departure from exclusively human subjectivities but a convergence with other subjectivities, as the final twist reveals that the girls have been housed in the basement of a zoo, and that Kevin’s personalities may have been stimulated by communion with the surrounding animals as much as with his own traumatic past and introspective life.
All that paves the way for a conclusion that refrains from painting Kevin as sympathetic or unsympathetic but instead frames him – quite provocatively – as sublime, generating a mixture of terror and wonder that almost dares you to find him ridiculous or to find Shyamalan’s high melodramatics disposable. Certainly, the inane, preposterous energy persists even here, but all its awry, unhinged energy is condensed into a series of prophetic announcements from Kevin that conclude the film. Finally settling upon a name for his collection of selves – “the horde” – and announcing that “we are glorious…we will no longer be afraid,” it feels like a sequence designed to provoke the audience’s most residual fears that those who have transitioned may actually be some kind of elect, or have some kind of special powers, as they are so often considered to have in indigenous societies. Conjoining the most radical and conservative types of transitioning present in American entertainment – transgender and superhero – the resulting tone is inevitably ludicrous in its dissonance and disjunction, but that’s also what makes it so stimulating and intriguing in its vision of what a genuinely innovative superhero franchise might look like. Here’s hoping that Shyamalan makes good on his recent momentum and brings this new project to pass with the same dexterity he has shown in his last two films.