Back in film school, I ended up watching a lot of films from a variety of directors. I think it was good to have that kind of exposure to all different kinds of cinema. That being said, we never spent a lot of time focusing on the work of directors. Auteur theory was drilled into our minds, but that mostly focused on the principle, not the practice. One of the few directors that I did get the luxury of knowing fairly well was ol’ shadow cameo himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Through a few different classes, I was familiarized with the majority of his work and came to recognize filmic techniques which were dubbed ‘hitchcockian’. Whilst I think that the precedent he set for the genre can sometimes be read into a bit too much, I do think that he really laid the foundation for what works and what doesn’t in terms of making a thrilling movie. Because of this and so many other iconic contributions the man had made to the cinematic world, many filmmakers pay homage to him with specific shots, sequences and perhaps even films in their entirety (sometimes this goes too far, I’m looking at you Gus Van Sant). I saw Split recently and I think it’s M. Night Shyamalan’s love letter to Hitchcock and he wrote it just in the knick of time.
A female protagonist with a riddled past. A psychological disorder. A uncanny sense of uneasiness. These were staple features in many Hitchcock movies and these are all present in Shyamalan’s Split. From the very first moment on screen – the opening credits, we know this is going to be a Hitchcockian thriller. The credits appear with the title overlaying nine different similar screens, picture in picture style, as if you’re looking at nine different TV stations broadcasting the same thing with the title taking front and center stage, broadcasting a larger version of what all of the smaller screens are showing simultaneously. Each one seems to have a fuzzy display, like a TV with poor reception and they have the text jump in and out of frame at a jarring rate. This splitscreen approach alludes to the dissociative identity disorder present in the film’s antagonist Kevin (James McAvoy), while utilizing the fuzzy effect to highlight the unstable nature of the personalities and using the sudden change of names to represent the ability for one personality might switch to another in an instant. See? Three minutes in and these elements tell you so much about the film before you’ve been introduced to a single character. It’s a beautiful use of the title sequence and it also pays homage to the way that Hitchcock used his title sequences.
Think about an iconic film like Psycho. That film also involved a mentally unstable character, who struggled with his identity and utilized it’s title sequence to say a lot about the character as well as the rhythm of the film. In the sequence, we see these actors’ names rapidly broadcast on screen, then the names split apart and do a little dance back and forth, creating a broken version of the name. These are creative ways that title designers stick to a films’ brand. We don’t know Norman Bates yet, but when we see Anthony Perkins’ name look like it’s being severed onscreen and then pushed away with little grey bars (a little prison symbolism anyone?), we get a sense of feeling about the film and the characters without even seeing them. I’m not trying to say lesser films are made without this flair. Hell, Woody Allen has had some killer movies in my opinion and he’s stuck with the standard, vanilla ice cream of title sequences his whole career. But Hitchcock was onto something that really benefitted the thriller genre by creating a sense of uneasiness before we see any action onscreen. Shyamalan thought it might be time to abandon his proclivity for cheesy twists and take this ‘protip‘ into consideration.
Speaking of great Hitchcock moves: female characters. If Hitchcock knew how to do something right, it was to create really interesting roles for women. Whether it’s Marnie, Madeleine, Melanie or Lila, Hitchcock had a tendency to create some memorable female characters; it was one of the things that he seems to be frequently posthumously recognized for. It wasn’t that there weren’t plenty of big-name female stars in the movies during his time, but there was a level of complexity to all of his characters that I don’t think was as present with female characters at the time. That’t not to say these women didn’t suffer. If they were the least bit sexual, they ended up being punished and the actresses took their fair share of abuse on set too.Take Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) from Psycho for a moment. The very first time we see her, she’s half-naked in bed with her boyfriend talking about how she plans on them getting married, if only he wasn’t such deep-ass debt, scrub. This sets her up to steal money that she’s given at work with the intention of using it to secure her marriage. So right out of the gate, we see her as sexual, criminal and determined, all for selfish reasons. This set-up frames her as impure and flawed, especially considering the social expectations of the era (ha!). That being said, a lot of them had agency and an edginess that they used to further their own agendas. And these bad characters always find justice somewhere and in this untimely case, it happens to be in an iconic shower. Still, she anchors the story up until her death and her sister Lila (Vera Miles) takes over afterwards. Lila, on the other hand, acts as a foil to Marion, trying desperately for nothing more than to figure out what happened to her sister. She has an agenda, a purpose and complexities as a character. She’s a bit more boring than Marion, but because she’s not sexual, she’s not punished! They are certainly two different examples, but either way, these two women are really well-written, intriguing characters for their time.
Nowadays, it seems like we’re seeing a lot more leading female characters. Star Wars, Divergent, Hunger Games, etc. The female heroine seems to be in! But as strong as all these new characters are, many are lacking in the depth and complexity that should be standard with leading ladies in this day and age. Shyamalan presents us with one leading lady: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and two supporting ones: Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Casey struggles with a difficult past: she is a victim of sexual abuse, her father passed away while she was a child and she is the apparent social outcast (as noted by her peers). Pretty early on, the film frames her as a “tainted” young woman. But she’s no Marion Crane. She doesn’t wear her vices with pride and has no criminal agenda. If anything, she’s owed justice. Claire and Marcia, on the other hand, are your run-of-the-mill, unsuspecting teenage girls who try to distance themselves from Casey prior to their capture. As far as the audience knows, these girls have lived quiet, boring lives void of any specific traumas, which makes them all the more unprepared when a real problem occurs. But these girls are a critique of current generation and emblematic of girls trapped in the suburban bubble.
So when our psycho Kevin kidnaps the ladies and traps them in a room, Casey is the only one with a sensible approach to the problem at hand. In the thriller/scary movie genre, it helps to be the sensible one as history has taught us time and time again. Spoiler alert, and I’m giving you until the end of this sentence to avoid ruining the movie okay it’s too late now and I’m just typing to save space – now to continue, (deep breath) things turn out much better for Casey than they do for Claire and Marcia. In the end, we’re left with her pitted against Kevin in a one-on-one standoff. Kevin, or rather a different personality inside Kevin, requires pure women as sacrifices in order to complete a ‘ritual’ and in a twist of fate in her favor, Casey’s “tainted” nature comes to save her. The scars of her abuse are revealed in the film’s climax and it is the sight of these past wounds which cause our villain to curtail his efforts. Her impurities, her complexities as a character, literally come to her rescue. Shyamalan takes a bit of a nuanced approach here, delivering her the justice she deserves in the end by sparing her life.
And to couple an interesting protagonist, Shyamalan provides us with quite the interesting antagonist as well. Kevin is a perfectly Hitchcockian villain. Hitchcock had a way of making villains really interesting, really creepy and really unpredictable. Some of that unpredictability came from the fact that he had a few characters who weren’t “all together” upstairs. Now, not all of his characters were explicitly mentally ill – it didn’t seem to be as prominent an issue as it is today – but there were quite a few who exhibited issues which remained undiagnosed. Think of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca (1940). That woman had a very intense obsession with a woman who was long dead to the point where she was invested in the woman’s underwear. Diagnosable? Probably today! Or that creepy dude from Rear Window (1954)? Sure, the killer gave us the chills, but it was James Stewart’s voyeuristic tendencies that would probably raise a couple psychologist’s eyebrows today. But for the purposes of similarities, I think the character to look at is, of course, Norman Bates. Bates is charming when we first meet him and seems relatively normal, minus mentioning his mother a bit too much (I think that’s up there on a ‘date dealbreaker’ list somewhere…). We learn that the charming façade is far from the truth and that he is more than a little bit messed up inside. By the end of the film, we learn that Norman struggled because he had this other personality living in him, causing a lot of his erratic behavior and his propensity for cross-dressing. Hitchcock’s twist ending was so intense for audiences that he got theaters to enforce a policy which wouldn’t allow them in late or it would screw up the effect! Norman was freaky with two people inside him, so can you imagine if he had twenty-four?
Thus Shyamalan created Kevin, a walking Robin Williams-esque impression factory, piloted by the seriously talented James McAvoy. Kevin has twenty-four people living inside one body, suffering from a condition known as dissociative identity disorder. Essentially, he has two “bad guy” personalities: Dennis, a tough gangsterish guy with a Brooklyn accent who is a bit of clean freak; and Patricia, an older, prim and proper, English woman who can be extremely spiteful of those who stand in her way (think Miranda Priestly meets Hannibal Lecter). These two personalities are in a coalition to complete a sacrifice necessary to summon ‘The Beast’, another personality who is hyped up to be this ultra-dangerous carnage-creator. These personalities are all such amazing characters in their own right and it can be alarming sometimes to remind yourself that you’re watching the same actor the whole time because these guys are all so different. He makes for an amazing villain for the genre because you never really know who you’re getting when he steps on scene! It’s that sense of uncertainty and unpredictability which makes him such a scintillating villain – it was the same characteristic that Norman Bates had which made him such an interesting personality. And just like Norman Bates, we get a glimpse into the reason that Kevin is in the personality predicament that he’s in: his mother. Through little flashbacks, we get a little bit of Kevin’s background and, without validating his actions, come to understand how his past trauma led to his current predicament. And Kevin seems like the natural evolution of a ‘Norman Bates’ character: multitudes more personalities running around one head and a (*cheesy*) connection to the ‘supernatural’. I think Kevin, really is, a Hitchcock character that never was. And though Mr. Hitchcock never got to use him, Shyamalan managed to do him justice in his own Shyamalany way.
I’ve tried to erase movies like The Happening from my memory and I really don’t want to go on spouting #spicerfacts like “M. Night Shyamalan is back for good with ‘Split’!“, I mean the man made The Last Airbender and that’s like that embarrassing drunk tattoo you got when you were nineteen – it ain’t going away. But I do think that Split shows that Shyamalan has learned a few things. It seems like he’s been studying things that the greats have done right and in this case taken some direct notes from The Master of Suspense’s playbook and actually scored big time. Sometimes it’s not always about inventing a new and interesting twist, bur rather taking some old ones and reworking them so they fit with your work and your style. It’s cool to use some of those classic techniques and character archetypes and if done tastefully and carefully, it pays homage the filmmaker who created them! I think Hitchcock would have loved Split. I know I enjoyed it (save for a few moments of cheesiness at the end). It sure was refreshing to have a great film like that come out in January, when things are slow, and give me a genuinely good movie-going experience.
Though he’ll never be able erase the last decade of shitty movies he’s given us, there is an opportunity for M. Night Shyamalan to keep getting better. Maybe if he’s lucky, he can follow in Matthew McConaughey’s footsteps and enter the Shyamalanaissance? Maybe then his films will one day fill a lecture hall at a University? That sure would be a twist.