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Split is twisty, weird, and a great guide to writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's obsessions

Everything Shyamalan loves to explore is in this film, which stars James McAvoy as man with dissociative identity disorder.

James McAvoy plays one of his split personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Split.
James McAvoy has a lot of costume changes in Split.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

There’s a clever hint in Split — I won’t give it away — that the latest thriller by famously twisty director M. Night Shyamalan exists in the same universe as at least one of his other movies.

That hint feels calculated to blow our collective minds. Are all of Shyamalan’s films in the same universe? Most of them are set in and around Shyamalan’s hometown of Philadelphia, as is Split. Could Cleveland Heep from Lady in the Water, out on a stroll sometime, accidentally wander into the Village? Could Graham Hess find himself administering the Eucharist at church one day to David Dunn?



Whether or not Split represents the birth of the Shyamalan Unified Cinematic Universe remains to be seen. But Split does unify Shyamalan’s films in other ways, specifically through its three biggest themes, which thread throughout most of the other movies he’s written and directed, from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable to The Village and The Visit. Even less critically praised entries like The Happening and Lady in the Water echo these themes.

Split might be Shyamalan’s most straightforward exploration to date of these three big themes, but they’re present, in some form or another, in most everything he makes.

1) People are motivated by death and dark secrets

Split pits a trio of teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) against their kidnapper (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 identities, and, it seems, a 24th may be readying itself to emerge. His therapist (Betty Buckley) is convinced he and others like him hold the key to some discovery that science does not yet understand.

Casey (Taylor-Joy, who was last seen in The Witch) is introduced to us as a sullen teenager and a clear outsider who’s only at a birthday party for the other girls because Claire (Richardson) felt compelled to invite her out of kindness. When Claire, Casey, and Marcia (Sula) are kidnapped, Casey’s first instinct isn’t to fight back. She despairs. Why even try?

A scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Split
What do you do when you’re locked in a basement with someone who’s never the same when he comes through the door?

In flashbacks, we come to realize that this instinct comes from both Casey’s loss of her beloved father and a secret she’s been hiding since she was a child. Casey’s been helpless for a long time, and it’s part of why she keeps to herself.

In this way, Casey is just one in a long string of Shyamalan characters who’ve isolated themselves in response to the loss of someone close to them. In Signs, Graham Hess is haunted by the loss of his wife; in Lady in the Water, Cleveland Heep has lost his entire family. David Dunn in Unbreakable is haunted by the near-loss of his wife, which has caused him to suppress an important memory. The village of The Village is created by people seeking to escape their tragedy and loss. Most of the action in The Happening comes from the same place. The Visit turns out to be about losing parents, too. And the whole concept of The Sixth Sense famously hinges on death and loss.

The fact that loss is a trigger for most of Shyamalan’s films is intriguing: There’s no clear biographical motivation for this, although Shyamalan went so far as to produce a fake documentary in 2014 about his own brief death as a child, in order to promote The Village.

Of course, death is hardly an obscure inspiration for movies. But it seems to occupy a special place in Shyamalan’s psyche. He’s interested in how people react to losing someone or something close to them, and his canon reflects that. That feeling of absence where once there was a person, for him, is the ultimate way to explain why people act how they do. Split joins that long line with yet another loss-haunted character.

2) The world contains more than we can see (sometimes)

Shyamalan’s psychological horror/thrillers often suggest that our senses can deceive us, and that what we think we know about the world is often wrong. This is how the famous “Shyamalan twist” usually operates: The characters — and the audience — make a set of assumptions about the world that turn out to be untrue. Surprise!

The Village is the most clearly allegorical of these twists: For most of the film, Ivy and Lucius (and the audience) assume that frightening creatures are keeping the villagers from entering the woods. The truth, of course, is much more complicated. A similar narrative move, in which a basic assumption about the movie’s setup turns out to be false, is what twists The Visit. (Shyamalan also served as a producer on Wayward Pines and directed one episode, which draws on the same uncertainty.)

Bryce Dallas Howard in The Village
Bryce Dallas Howard makes a discovery in The Village.

In some films, like Lady in the Water, The Sixth Sense, and Unbreakable, it’s what the characters believe about themselves that turns out to be totally false. Can we even be sure our minds are accurately feeding us information about our own nature? Or — as in Signs and The Happening — has science really sorted out the natural and supernatural world as neatly as we think?

Split capitalizes on similar moments of pulling the rug out from under the audience. While the characters quickly figure out that their kidnapper has DID and is manifesting multiple personalities, how that condition actually works in this instance is the mystery. (McAvoy’s extraordinarily committed performance — in the credits, he’s listed as playing nine different characters — is a feat of remarkable shape-shifting.)

Shyamalan’s propensity to turn the tables on his characters and the audience works to his advantage in Split, which is actually less twisty than some of his other movies. But because we know it’s a Shyamalan movie, we spend the whole time second-guessing whether what we think we’re seeing onscreen is actually what we’re seeing, and whether the assumptions we’ve made are true. That means even when there’s nothing to second-guess, we’re still second-guessing — and so seemingly simple plot elements (some candy on a table, for instance, or the way someone dances) feel like they could be clues about some unknown mystery. That could be annoying, but in Split it feels like it’s all part of the game Shyamalan is playing with us.

But the self-deception common to Shyamalan’s characters is here, too; Casey has to find the truth about herself and discover her own agency through the fog of trauma in order to stay alive. This self-deception is also refracted in the kidnapper, who has so many personalities warring within him that it’s basically impossible for him to know himself.

As for science, the therapist, Dr. Fletcher, is sure she’s found something remarkable in this patient, something that may unlock mysteries of the human brain and belief in the divine. And she has. It’s just not what she thinks it is.

3) Your trauma is your superpower

This is the main theme of Split, and to be honest, it’s a troubling one. It’s voiced most clearly at the end, by a (literal) predator, who tells Casey that she is pure because of what she’s endured at the hands of others.

Naturally, the words of a predator and a villain should be taken with a hearty dash of salt — but it seems like the movie doesn’t discount this suggestion at all. Split’s whole bent is toward saying that only those who’ve endured extreme anguish or abuse are really capable of surviving in the world, and that they ought, in some manner, to be grateful for it. The kidnapper’s disorder came about as a way to cope with an abusive mother, while Dr. Fletcher is certain that the results of that abuse will give the human race new insight into its own condition, maybe even unlock its own potential.

Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Willis in Unbreakable
Superheroes and villains.

This is a common trope in superhero stories from Batman to Captain America: Trauma is what gives heroes their powers. And it’s a continued theme throughout Shyamalan’s work as well. In Unbreakable, the superhero connection is made explicit, and trauma is what surfaces David’s potential. In Lady in the Water, Heep’s repressed grief is what makes him powerful. In The Sixth Sense, it’s what gives Cole the ability to see ghosts.

Given how common this trope is, there’s probably some truth buried in it, and some utility to it as well: Trauma is horrible to endure, but those who get through it can develop reactive instincts that can be an advantage in future troubling circumstances.

But the coupling of this suggestion with DID feels off in Split. Of course, people with DID do at times display extraordinary abilities that don’t seem to fit into what we know about human biology and psychology. There’s an argument to be made, and the movie seems to want to make it, that DID can and even ought be treated as more of a feature than a bug — that the kidnapper’s disorder gives him superpowers, which he developed to survive his childhood abuse. And Casey, too, received a sort of gift from her own trauma.

However, Split isn’t deeply reflective on this point. And by mirroring the trauma-as-superpower trope in both the kidnapper and Casey, the movie runs the risk of exploiting something that lots of people struggle with — both the effects of abuse and disorders like DID — and saying that they’re more special than other people, which could be taken as just another way of saying that they’re weird.

James McAvoy in Split
The kidnapper takes another form.

That almost certainly wasn’t Shyamalan’s aim. He tends to like a positive ending, and he seems to be going after something interesting with Split. But while this idea of trauma-induced ability could be taken as empowering, it also feels a little fetishistic here. And Split’s ultimate outcome is a little troubling for those who actually do struggle with DID. A bit more attention to the implications of the screenplay would have not just avoided some of these pitfalls but also picked up the pace in some spots where the film lags unnecessarily.

Still, even with its drawbacks, Split is a solid encapsulation of what Shyamalan is all about, propelled by all his favorite topics, goosed by the audience’s expectations of a Shyamalan film, and topped off with the signature Shyamalan twist. And if it turns out to launch the Shyamalan Unified Cinematic Universe, too, I doubt fans will complain.

Split opens in theaters on January 20.