Split

So M. Night Shyamalan is one of the few directors I had put on a “never again” list, as in I would simply never again see a movie by him, no matter how good it looked. But then he went away and retooled, and came back with much more humble, low-key movies, and while I avoided the “Grandma’s House” one, the combination of needing to get out of the house, convenient theater and not much else to see conspired for me to break my rule.

The film isn’t bad. It shares with Shyamalan’s other work the sense of stretching something rather simple and insubstantial out to great lengths by examining every possible permutation of the story, but on the other hand, it fills out two hours of simple, insubstantial story with pretty consistent suspense, which is an achievement. There is one very disturbing, highly morally questionable story element that we’ll go into in the spoilers, but otherwise it’s a fairly successful movie with good performances and I can see why it’s doing so well at the box office.

Three girls are kidnapped in the first moments. Soon it is revealed that their captor has several personalities. The movie is filled with their several attempts to escape and outsmart him. It is also extensively padded out with visits to his therapist, played by Betty Buckley. And while it’s lovely to see her again, one soon notices that 85% of her considerable time here is just padding, and ultimately comes to very little. The movie has a kind-of resolution, and then a tacked-on “reveal” that I find self-referential and more tacky than anything.

So my problem with this movie is that while it is PG-13 in its violence, it is pretty XXX in its implications, to the extent that it draws the whole rating system into question. The entire situation of three high school girls held captive by an adult man implies that he is going to rape them. Whether he does or not, the situation of sexual power is undeniable, and what I find really dirty here is that the film PLAYS with that idea, finding excuses for the girls to have to remove their clothes over the course of the film, and stay in their new modes of undress. We find out little details like that one of the personalities “likes to watch girls dance naked” and that another personality has “promised not to touch them.” So, true, very little is happening IN the movie, but it is consistently suggesting quite filthy ideas to the viewer’s mind, and… that has to count for something. But these ideas wouldn’t be quite so potent without the addition of a very explicit story thread that constitutes a spoiler…

SPOILERS > > > We have a fair number of flashbacks to our main victim, Casey [played by The Witch and Morgan’s Anya Taylor-Joy] hunting with her father and uncle. We think these are leading up to her using her smarts and survival skills in her forthcoming Final Girl moments, but… it doesn’t quite work out that way. We soon find that her uncle tried to molest her one day while out hunting. We cut away to her aiming a shotgun at him later, implying that he did molest her. To our surprise, she allows her uncle to disarm her, a break from the typical “power girl” moment, and first instance of her passivity. Later we see her father has died, and her uncle gets custody of her, implying that she has been extensively molested, and has continued to be extensively molested up until her captivity in this film. That’s one thing, but what’s extremely disturbing to me is that the film shows her as consistently passive—right up until the final moments, when she has the opportunity to kill her captor point-blank, but simply doesn’t. She is rescued, and a female cop informs that her uncle has come to pick her up. Casey’s face remains impassive for a long moment, making us wonder of she’ll tell… but we cut away, and never find out. The film’s Wiki page says her look “implies” that she’ll tell the cops about her uncle, but her passivity throughout the film, and the fact that without hearing words, we cannot KNOW what she’s thinking or what happens off screen. The impression I got is that she will continue to remain passive, and go back to being abused by her uncle. So you have a weird reversal of the Final Girl thing, where instead of the woman finding her power, she survives through a passive circumstance [in fact, BY displaying evidence of the psychological harm her uncle’s abuse is causing] and remains passive right until the end. < < < SPOILERS END

So it’s very, VERY disturbing, and I can’t believe feminists aren’t making a bigger deal out of it. Regardless of what you think about the movie, and even regardless of what Shyamalan is trying to “say,” what we have here is a case of an adult man putting an inordinate amount of thought into the idea of underage girls being sexually abused by men, and that’s just not seemly, and I would highly advise him to keep that stuff out of his future movies. As for the movie, that departure from the standard woman-finds-her-power, Final Girl narrative makes the movie different, which also succeeds in kind of making it distinctive and special, for better or worse.

It’s an insane world, if you haven’t noticed that already.

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3 thoughts on “Split

  1. *SPOILERS*

    Yeah, the subplot you identify is really, really upsetting. Especially when you factor in that the other two girls get separated because they try to be proactive and do something, while the Final Girl consistently tells them they need to wait and try to work with their captor. So the film seems to imply the only reason she DOES survive is because she’s so good at waiting through a bad situation. It’s beyond gross.

    Also not a fan of the self-referential end scene.

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  2. Ugh. Just watched this and thank you for verbalising what was bugging me about it. The passive way she just looks at the police at the end made me want to go scrub my skin off in the shower.

    I recently watched Unbreakable for the first time and it struck me in the same way as just being really, really, grubby. Nasty ideas are thrown out to get a cheap emotional reaction from the viewer. Emotions that are invoked that are not really earned by the film, and the horrible implications are not seemingly even seriously thought through by the director. The effect is just upsetting and ugly.

    I loved Anna Taylor Joy in The VVitch, and I hope she goes on to movies that make better use of her considerable talents than this. And Shyamalan is going back in the Do Not Watch shelf.

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