#FilmFriday–M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” (2017)

**Warning: May Contain Spoilers**

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As many of you know, Split (2017) has become M. Night Shyamalan’s most successful film in recent memory. James McAvoy’s eerie performances paired with Shyamalan’s subjective camera work creates an intimate experience filled with suspense and tension. The course of the film leaves the audience disoriented by its limited perspective created through an array of POV and overhead shots along with rapid changes in visual focus. I personally enjoyed this suspenseful thriller, but it left me with conflicted feelings due to its underlying social commentary.

The story begins with the abduction of three high school girls by an unknown man, who we learn to be Kevin. Kevin is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder and has a total of 24 distinct personalities. For the namesake of horror, Shyamalan exaggerates the psychological definition of this disorder in order to portray Kevin not as someone who suffers from mental illness but one with “superhuman” capabilities. This is conceptualized through Kevin’s 24th personality, “The Beast”. Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist, theorizes that people with dissociative identity disorder have an ability to develop distinctive physical qualities within each personality. “The Beast”, however, defies all natural exceptions. It allows Kevin’s body to manifest supernatural strength to climb walls, an ability to resist bullets, and a cannibalistic taste for the ‘inferior’ flesh of his young captives. The ‘inferiors’, in “The Beast’s” terminology, are those who have not suffered a history of childhood abuse. 

Before his beastly transformation, we learn that Kevin’s personalities serve as protectors from his past of physical abuse by his mother. Unlike the other abductees, Casey, the outcast of the group, develops an intimate relationship with Kevin’s 9 year-old personality, Hedwig. Through a series of flashbacks, Casey suffered a similar past of sexual abuse from her uncle which may explain her instinctive motive to build trust with Kevin’s personalities. It is this shared past that ends up saving her from the wrath of “The Beast”.

An interpretation of “The Beast” is to suggest that those who experience abuse are not weak, but more powerful than others. Superhuman to be exact, similar to the abilities of the mutants in X-men. I must admit, M. Night Shyamalan’s inclusion of a superpowered personality is abstract. But, to be honest, “The Beast” insults anyone who suffers from mental illness by making their condition a dehumanized spectacle for horror. What is even worse is Shyamalan’s disregard to accurately depict dissociative identity disorder just for the thrill. His choice to include “The Beast” stigmatizes mental illness while perpetuating a demonized representation for Split’s audience to take home.To explain abuse as a trigger for one to transcend human capabilities is disrespectful and unnecessary.

 

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“The Beast” exhibiting his superhuman strength by bending the iron bars protecting Casey. Image provided by Universal Pictures film, Split (2017).

Overall, “The Beast” can be seen as a perverse mutant gone rogue. His agony and pain consumes him while creating a vengeful thirst that can only be quenched by the flesh of privileged “inferiors”. As “The Beast” prepares to devour Casey, he suddenly notices the mosaic of self-inflicted scars covering her body. He backs away in realization that she too is a “superior” as they are both victims of abuse. “The Beast” then explains that the other abductees were “inferior” to them for they have not experienced or endured the cruelties of this world. It is from my understanding that the purpose of his animalistic embodiment was to consume and eliminate “inferiors” in order to enhance his own “superiority” of supernatural abilities. No longer having a means to feed on Casey, he leaves her unarmed and flees.

The next day, Casey is found by a zoo employee who contacts the police to investigate the horrific crime that took place. A female officer approaches her in the police car and tells her, “Your uncle is here to take you home”. In a moment of contemplation, Casey withdrawals eye contact. As she looks up, Casey gives an emotional expression that screams “I am being sexually abused” without uttering a word. The police woman looks back with a sense of understanding, but the camera cuts aways before we figure out whether Casey is saved from her abusive household. To me, this was one of the most effective scenes of the film because I believe the police woman represents the public’s acknowledgement of sexual abuse and its choice to ignore it or push it aside.

This scene also brings into question: Did “The Beast’s” speech of superiority finally give her the strength to report her sexual abuse?

Split has so much more to offer regarding an analysis, but that thesis shall be saved for another time. However, I think Split would serve better as a thriller that acts as a commentary on the monstrosity residing in humanity and its corruption of innocence, leaving the victim a choice to abide to a monstrous role themselves (Kevin) or to oppose it (Casey)

What are your thoughts on M. Night Shyamalan’s Split?

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