Blake HowardComment

“Split” (2016) and M. Knight Shayamalan’s theatre of claustrophobia

Blake HowardComment
“Split” (2016) and M. Knight Shayamalan’s theatre of claustrophobia

M. Night Shyamalan is a completely underappreciated formal director. His aptitude for layering storytelling tropes for maximum ‘shock-twist,’ far eclipses his manipulation of spaces to heighten dramatic tension. In “The Sixth Sense” the large majority of the film played out in Cole Sear’s (Haley Joel Osment) creaky home; where kitchen cabinets open themselves and indoor ‘cubby houses’ can be transformed to ominous dens. “The Village” is set an enclosed compound where the architects peddle fear as a mechanism to control their occupants in the enclosed space that they’ve created, as much as it’s to keep the rapidly changing and, in their mind devolving world out. “Signs,” too is an alien invasion film that anchors the Hess family - Rev. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), Merrill Hess (Joaquin Phoenix), Morgan Hess (Rory Culkin), Bo Hess (Abigail Breslin) - to their isolated farmhouse and uses the very crops that they grow as a means to survive as a bramble guising the off world occupants. “Split” is further evidence of MNS’ mastery fashioning maddening echo chambers for his characters. 

Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) is finishing up a birthday party chatting with her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), about to get a ride home from her Dad when they offer a ride to outsider Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) - who received a pity invite to the get together. Claire’s Dad offers Casey a ride home and seconds before they leave, he’s assaulted and a bespectacled stranger (James MacAvoy) enters the car. Before the shock has a chance to set in he dons a breathing mask and sprays a sleeping agent into the girls’ faces. When they rouse, they’re in a dungeon-like underground bunker, trapped with their unique kidnapper Kevin who suffers from a multiple personality disorder like no other; manifesting 23 individual personalities. The girls, and the audience, begin to come to terms that housed within the same vessel are drastically different people, with different agendas and genders. Barry, the fashion designer is usually the organiser of the group and coordinates the 21 personalities that play well with others (we learn that two have been banished from the light). However, Hedwig a petulant, music loving, dopey nine-year old persona has the ability to hand Kevin’s body’s spotlight over to any participant at any time; releasing Dennis, the hostile sociopath with a penchant for young girls and Patricia, a sadistic passive aggressive ready to unleash the violence onto the world. This trio are preparing for the emergence of a supposed 24th personality; The Beast.

MNS uses a therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as the perfect device to legitimise the possibility of what’s occurring and puts the prospect of being able to shake Kevin, the shell housing these dominant 23/24 personalities, out of a slumber. Dr. Fletcher (Buckley) controls every interaction with Kevin’s personas, observing their mannerisms and holding the character to account for the deception. The scenes with the Dr. are MNS releasing the vice like grip of the girls’ imprisonment and attempting to convince those in the audience resistant to the concept. 

One imagines that it’s a blank stage. The personas sit in in an enclosed circle shrouded somewhat in shadow. In the centre there’s the light, and a portal to the outside that we the audience get to view. It’s a fantastic exercise in a performer’s ability to conjure different authentic characters with dimensions, mannerisms and voices. McAvoy is a delight in “Split,” largely because he’s able to use Kevin’s space with the wardrobe of his variety of personas like a change room that he can retreat into to get in the zone and appear renewed.  

“Split” unfolds in an underground bunker, fitted out firstly for Kevin’s personalities to transition and communicate in isolation, but for the duration of the film it transforms into a prison for Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). In what are essentially two rooms for the majority of the film he manipulates the angles to emulate the posture and movement of the persona’s behaviours. Whether it’s clumsy, obsessive qualities, a controlled threatening posture it’s reinforcing and explaining (via flashbacks) Casey’s (Taylor-Joy - star of the wonderful and terrifying “The VVitch”) dark past. 

While Claire and Marcia are shaking in fear post kidnapping, huddled together shaking after Dennis’ first attempted dance, Casey sleeps soundly. In “The Usual Suspects,” the film that launched the careers of Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie, the detective interrogating Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) teaches Verbal a lesson that rattled through my mind watching “Split”. “First day on the job, you know what I learned? How to spot a murderer. Let's say you arrest three guys for the same killing. You put them all in jail overnight. The next morning, whoever's sleeping is your man. You see, if you're guilty, you know you're caught, you get some rest, you let your guard down." Casey (Taylor-Joy) is familiar with the behaviours of a prisoner. She has instincts to satisfy the ego of the different prison guard personas Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig; but flashbacks take us to disturbing moments of her past that infer that this cage may even be a refuge to her life from the outside world. 

“Split” has every reason not to work but the execution delivers precisely because it allows for the inexplicable. 

★★★★

BLAKE HOWARD IS A WRITER, A PODCASTER, AND THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.