Horror movies don’t get the respect of dramas, comedies, or even superhero movies, but in some ways they are the most daring kind of storytelling. Unlike romantic comedies or action movies, horror films are allowed to be unpredictable. Characters we’ve come to like bite the dust. Everybody knows that Spider-Man is not going to go down but in The Exorcist (1973), the leading character, a priest, does. In Drag Me to Hell (2009), a young woman who was heartless to a poor old woman gets sucked into the netherworld by demons. In Sinister (2012), one of my favorites, a writer played by Ethan Hawke realizes too late that his fascination with watching grisly movies he found in the attic of a new home is letting a sinister force into his house. That sort of thing won’t happen to Captain America.
Horror films can also reinforce positive social norms. Slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street (whose much-sequeled originals came out in 1980 and 1984, respectively) don’t have a great deal of aesthetic value, but the kids who get knocked off in them are the usually ones who are drunk, promiscuous, or mean. Frankenstein (1931) warns us not to play God and try and reverse the inevitability of death. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is a parable about thoughtless conformity.
Split, the new film by M. Night Shyamalan, is a meditation on pain, trauma, and the dangerous ignorance of the snowflake generation. It’s also become an unexpected hit during what are usually the winter doldrums for Hollywood. Warning: spoilers ahead, so stop reading if you plan on seeing the film.
The movie opens with three teenaged girls who get kidnapped by a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (played by a committed and impressive James McAvoy). Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, colloquially known as “split personality.” A survivor (or maybe not fully) of childhood abuse, Kevin has 23 different personalities, one of whom—“Dennis,” an efficient and menacing utility worker—snatches the girls and keeps them locked in an underground cell. Kevin shifts personalities every time he walks into the girls’ room, and hints that a 24th personality, a terrifying animalistic entity called “The Beast,” is about to show up. Will the girls be saved in time? Or will Kevin’s therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (an excellent and believable Betty Buckley) manage to bring him to his senses?
Pretty young girls held captive, dim lighting, a violent killer—it all sounds like the stuff of B exploitation films. But Shyamalan, the writer and director of the fine films The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000) (as well as stinkers like 2010’s The Last Airbender and 2004’s The Village) has written a fairly deep story. Kevin’s actions have a genuine sociological point. To Kevin, American suburban girls are a pampered demographic that are not worthy of evolutionary advancement. Unlike him, they bear no marks of being toughened by abuse, and therefore no wisdom or strength, and no means of survival.
In a nice touch, we see at the outset that two of the girls, Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are so distracted by their smart phones that for minutes they have no idea they are being kidnapped. The third girl, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy in an excellent performance), who doesn’t have a phone, is considered weird but only because she, like Kevin, has experienced real pain. Therapist Dr. Fletcher offers Kevin—and “Barry” and “Dennis” and “Patricia” and “Hedwig” and whoever else is in his head—unconditional acceptance and endless talk about how special he is and how much she appreciates him. Her all-of-you-get-a-trophy patter is considerably less effective when she comes face to face with “The Beast.”
Kevin’s personalities are presented as adaptive, in the Darwinian sense. (This is similar to the advantageous mutations of the mutants in the X-Men films.) But they have also made him anti-social and unable to love or communicate—in a word, inhuman. Kevin’s pain has birthed a being who is physically superior to other humans but spiritually dead. His physiology changes, a la Dorian Gray or “The Hulk,” as The Beast arrives, but as he gains strength, whatever was human in Kevin disintegrates.
It’s Kevin’s view that naive and phone-addicted girls are for consumption by The Beast, their bodies giving nourishment to the new master race. But the girls, for all their shallowness, in the end show that they have not lost their empathy as he has. Actor McAvoy, known mostly for his role as X-Men’s Charles Xavier, knows about mutation and is riveting here. Sinking into his various personalities, he avoids the hamminess that can send actors playing mental illness into bathos or camp.
Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Goulakis (2014’s It Follows) are masters at creating scary moods. Avoiding the genre’s cheap jump scares and buckets-of-blood aesthetics, they hold the camera steady, letting their actors, and the settings, convey malevolence through slowly building tension and psychology. The score by West Dylan Thordson swells at just the right times, and then recedes to let the characters (and the viewers) breath. The scene were Kevin, who has become The Beast, scales the pipes of a dingy underground corridor, swapping light bulbs like a gibbon as they pop off, is brilliant, reminiscent of the great tunnel shots in the 1948 noir classic He Walked by Night.
Split argues that pain makes us strong and street-smart, while accepting that trauma of the type associated with child abuse can transform us into monsters. We don’t want our kids so glued to their phones and showered with positive re-enforcement that they can’t defend themselves in battle—but we also want to protect them from the pain that would rob them of their humanity. Pain might help us survive and feel for others, but too much can turn us rabid.
Crisply shot, well acted, and compelling from start to finish, Split is the best movie surprise of 2017. Also: for fans of Shyamalan’s better previous films, the cameo at the end of Split is flat-out awesome.