This review of Split is loaded with spoilers. I wish there were even more. It would be nice to spoil the entire movie.
The huge success of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a surprise, but only because of the director’s recent track record. Shyamalan — or, as I like to call him, the Shyamster — is a real showman. He has a gift for making clunkiness look like high seriousness, so that a second-rate shock show like Split is being greeted as a thriller of substance. Many critics have been enthusiastic and audiences seem to like the movie, too. What I can’t figure out is why more people aren’t disgusted by how the Shyamster exploits the trauma of childhood sexual abuse for his own stupid, meretricious ends.
All horror films exploit something, obviously. Shyamalan’s last film, The Visit, was an unusually unpretentious (for him) scare picture about two kids and their freaky grandparents: Shyamalan cunningly played on the idea that your grandparents’ home is where you go for comfort when your real home doesn’t feel like one. (He’s a cultural reactionary — and a prude. The kids end up like Hansel and Gretel because their single mom is on a trip with her latest boyfriend.) The Visit’s relative modesty was calculated. It followed a line of risible big-budget bombs, among them The Narf in the Bathtub (I forget the actual title), in which a mermaid-goddess materialized on Earth to inspire a messianic writer played by Shyamalan, and The Happening, a psychotic version of The Lorax. (The Truffula trees drive people to suicide.) Now, emboldened by the success of The Visit, Shyamalan has returned to what he loves to do: use cheap horror tropes to create his own harebrained mythos.
The hook of Split is that a man named Kevin (James McAvoy) has 24 separate and distinct personalities and seems to be able to alter his physiology, neurochemistry, and accent with every one. It’s true that the split-personality concept, which is now called dissociative identity disorder, doesn’t work like it does in the movie*, but that’s not worth getting exercised about: This is still an effective horror-movie conceit. The film opens with a scary sequence in which Kevin — or, as we’ll learn, “Dennis,” Kevin’s steeliest alter ego — renders three teenage girls unconscious and whisks them to a decrepit underground lair. In this scene and others, the Shyamster uses POV shots with chilling dexterity: We have no idea until later what happened to the father of one girl. And for once in a modern thriller, the spatial confusion is purposeful.
Where voices are concerned, though, McAvoy is no Peter Sellers. One of those Brits (he’s Scottish) who can’t quite nail American inflections, McAvoy makes most of his characters sound like they’re from Brooklyn. But you certainly see the acting, which is enough to make some people say, “Wow! He’s some actor!” Apart from Dennis, McAvoy’s most striking characterizations are Barry, a likable, presumably gay dress designer, and Hedwig, a nasty, lisping nine-year-old. Maybe Hedwig is the creepiest. In one of the best scenes, he lets himself be tricked by the heroine, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), into taking her to his room. We watch him vogue to Madonna from Casey’s fixed perspective — in and out of the frame and then suddenly close, too close, to ask what she thought of the grisly spectacle. She is suitably tongue-tied. When he asks if he can kiss her the audience groans, as if he’s really a nine-year-old. You just know he’ll have too much saliva.
Taylor-Joy, best known for The Witch, is a remarkable camera object and perhaps — we’ll see when she’s called on to show more range — an actress of real power. Her eyes are huge and far apart, but what makes them so spooky is the way the pupils merge with the dark irises, so that those eyes look like two big balls of blackness. She’s like an alien-abductee’s sketch made flesh. She looks at Kevin in all his guises as one who has seen the worst of this world and still can’t fathom the depths of this depravity.
But whenever the psychosexual stuff gets intense, Shyamalan loses the pulse. He cuts to wordy, exposition-crammed scenes in which a therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), demonstrates that she’s engaged in a battle not just for Kevin’s sanity but also to show to her skeptical colleagues that the human body is more malleable than scientists believe. People like Kevin are proof, she says, that certain kinds of stress can literally transform you. Flashbacks show that the 24 personalities arrived after the young Kevin was hideously abused. Now, each one (they’re all named) sits patiently waiting for his or her turn in the spotlight to protect Kevin from the world’s evils, even if it means crowding him out altogether.
Dr. Fletcher and Kevin are on the same page. Kevin’s most radical iteration, number 24, “the Beast,” is no mere monster. He’s an evangelist for a more evolved kind of human. The Beast eats inferiors — including two of his teenage captives — but realizes in the end that Casey is like him. As a series of flashbacks makes clear, she has also been abused. Her uncle — a burly guy who likes to strip off his clothes — began messing with her even before her dad died and he became her guardian. Now, she shuns her peers and hacks away at her own flesh. The Beast is impressed.
It has been 25 years since Carol Clover in Men, Women, and Chain Saws identified the archetype of the “Final Girl,” the lone woman who survives the monster’s onslaught and is able to vanquish him. (It’s almost always a “him.”) In many cases, the Final Girl is so strong because she’s sexually pure, although such films as I Spit On Your Grave and Ms. 45 suggest that sexual violation will turn her into a predator more powerful than her violators. The Shyamster is not the first to suggest that what doesn’t kill a victim makes him or her stronger. That would be Nietzsche. It would also be the David Cronenberg of such ‘80s horror films as The Brood, in which a doctor believes that by acting out a repressed trauma you can make it flesh (and be unable to control it). There’s a link between extreme torture and spiritual transcendence in the seminal French film Martyrs (which I strongly warn you off seeing if you haven’t — not because it’s bad but because it can’t be unseen). And then, of course, there are the X-Men and their ilk, whose superpowers are extensions of adolescent woes. We know that Shyamalan takes comic-book powers seriously. He created his own pretentious superhero/supervillain movie, Unbreakable, which he actually invokes in Split’s unbelievably stilted coda. From that perspective, the Beast is his dark take on Wolverine and Casey his Rogue.
My loathing of Split goes beyond its derivative ideas and second-hand parts. Though Shyamalan doesn’t use a lot of blood in Split — there’s barely any — his framing sexualizes the torture of the other two teenage girls in a way I found reprehensible. And his depictions of childhood sexual abuse are clinically accurate enough to make anyone with experience of such things feel sick. All this is used in the most opportunistic way imaginable, to prop up astonishingly dumb ideas about the human psyche. Those superhero comic books deal in metaphor. Only someone as grandiose and insular as Shyamalan would use the most cheapjack psycho-on-the-loose formula to make the case that the victims of childhood sexual trauma are actually more, not less, powerful than other people.
A reasonable objection to what I’ve written is that this notion is the Beast’s and not Shyamalan’s and therefore no more objective than any other monster’s. But the Beast isn’t imagining his superhuman powers. He is superhuman. And his abuse of Casey inspires her — presumably — to tell the kindly policewoman that she doesn’t want to go back to her pederast uncle. The Shyamster obviously thinks he’s onto something, that he can once more raise the existential and/or religious stakes of trashy genre movies. The voice I hear in my head is not Casey’s but Little Carol Anne from Poltergeist. “He’s baaaaaaaack.”
* This article had been updated to reflect that dissociative identity disorder is a recognized illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.