How 'supernatural' is M Night Shyamalan’s latest film?

And what links it with his best work, the 2000 film Unbreakable?

 |  7-minute read |   27-02-2017
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[This piece contains minor spoilers for both Split and Unbreakable – though nothing that should prevent you from enjoying the films.]

M Night Shyamalan’s new film Split — about a man with multiple-personality disorder, the three young girls he kidnaps, and a psychiatrist who tries to figure things out — is being seen in many quarters as a part-return to form for a director whose work in the last decade has mostly been savaged by critics.

I enjoyed Split a lot too, even though it has some weaknesses — plot loopholes, unrealised ideas, ponderous staging of dramatic moments — that one has come to associate with MNS’ cinema over the years.

But then, the Good Shyamalan vs Bad Shyamalan game doesn’t much interest me anyway: I peg him as a director who can do provocative things even in a film that doesn’t work overall; someone whose “failures” are more worthy of movie-nerd discussions than the “successes” of few other filmmakers.

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Split is a product of Shyamalan's distinctive mindscape, and this becomes clearer in its final scenes.

Besides, my feelings about his work tend to change. After first viewing his 2004 The Village, about a community that cuts itself off from the rest of the world by retreating into a forest setting and constructing scary stories that will prevent its youngsters from wanting to explore the unknown, I came out fuming about the film’s inert pace, stodgy dialogue and performances.

Re-watching it on TV recently, I found myself more willing to overlook those things, more absorbed by the theme of well-meaning, deeply sensitive people building walls around themselves — and also by how certain attitudes shown by these “old-time” folk contain echoes of the culture Shyamalan’s family hails from. (Watching some scenes, I thought about poor or under-educated people in India who are still afraid of injections, and generally sceptical of modern medicine.)

Returning to Split, this film belongs to a subgenre that includes Brian DePalma’s underappreciated Raising Cain, in which John Lithgow played multiple personalities housed in the same body – the most intriguing of which, a woman (is she a threat or a maternal protector? You might not be able to decide even after watching the film), appears late in the narrative. Or the 2003 Identity, which is an even more complex affair (and I won’t spoil it here).

However, Split is also very much a Shyamalan film, a product of his distinctive mindscape, and this becomes clearer in its final scenes.

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Though Unbreakable's Elijah is steeped in a world of comic-book mythologies, he doesn’t have any unearthly powers himself.

As the main narrative winds up, a lush, previously unheard soundtrack begins; it took me all of three seconds to recognise it as James Newton Howard’s score for my favourite Shyamalan work, the 2000 film Unbreakable.

I didn’t read much into this at first, figuring the director was recycling an old tune for dramatic impact. But then, the very last shot made an explicit connection between the world of Split and the world of Unbreakable.

It isn’t a dramatic “twist” of the sort one associates with Shyamalan — the sort that led him to joke on Twitter that he had scripted the crazy ending to this year’s Oscar ceremony) — but it opens a tantalising possibility about ideas he may explore in his future work.

Both Unbreakable and Split, in different ways, are about the birth of a super-villain — yet they almost feel like tongue-in-cheek ripostes to the Marvel and DC movie franchises, because these origin myths play out in relatively mundane ways.

In Unbreakable, the tormented Elijah (Samuel L Jackson), born with the rare condition of excessively brittle bones, unleashes large-scale destruction in a quest to find his exact opposite: someone who would, by implication, be indestructible.

But though Elijah is steeped in a world of comic-book mythologies, he doesn’t have any unearthly powers himself. (You don’t have to be superhuman to do a lot of evil.)

In Split, the protagonist Kevin (marvellously played by James McAvoy in what is easily the best lead performance in a Shyamalan film) has 23 people inside him, who take turns to “come into the light”, or to become the active personality.

None of the personalities we meet, not even the one who kidnaps the three girls, seems terribly menacing, and a couple of them — the nine-year-old Hedwig, for instance — are sweet and vulnerable.

But as the story progresses, we learn of the possible surfacing of a malevolent 24th personality, The Beast, who is stronger than the others, and feeds on human flesh.

Despite that plot summary, little in this narrative can be considered outright fantastical. In fact, one thing that Unbreakable and Split have in common, which makes it easier to see them as part of the same fictional universe, is that they are among the Shyamalan films that don’t pivot around explicitly-supernatural plot points; perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that where paranormal or otherworldly elements do exist, there is some ambiguity involved.

In this way, they are different from The Sixth Sense (which is definitely about ghosts), or Signs (which has bulbous green aliens), or Lady in the Water (a water nymph from a mysterious Blue World, plus the even more bizarre notion that a contemporary American president could be goaded into positive action by the work of a mere writer!).

The scenes involving The Beast are the ones where Split seems to take an unavoidable step towards the supernatural: after all, if this new creature requires an actual physical transformation in Kevin’s body, we should be at least in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde territory.

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When The Beast is introduced late in Split, the film stays more low-key than we might have expected it to.

But simultaneously, in scenes featuring the psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, the film has been discussing the many undocumented mysteries of the human brain – including the possibility that the mind can, to a degree, overcome the limitations of the flesh. A woman might have two personalities, one of whom is blind and the other sighted. Another patient might write unrelated things simultaneously with his right and left hand, producing different handwriting.

In these scenes, Split reminded me of the case studies in the writings of such neurologists as Oliver Sacks and VS Ramachandran, about astonishing real-life situations where the human mind and body worked in ways that many of us would find hard to fathom.

Cases of phantom pregnancies, for instance, where a psychological condition can lead to crucial changes in the body’s endocrine system, mimicking the symptoms of pregnancy even when there is no baby. (For more on this, read the essay “You Forgot to Deliver the Twin!” from Ramachandran’s book Phantoms in the Brain.)

Notably, when The Beast is introduced late in Split, the film stays more low-key than we might have expected it to, and chooses to be ambiguous about the extent of his powers.

We have already been told that he will be more muscular than Kevin normally is, quicker, more agile — all of which is true.

Yet, the alteration isn’t anywhere close to being as dramatic as, say, that of Bruce Banner into The Hulk.

For nearly every scene where we see the Beast do something extraordinary, it is possible to ask: well, okay, but couldn’t the real Kevin have done that much with just a few hormonal or neurological tweaks?

None of this is to assert that Split would be seen as a plausible film by peer-tested science. Some of the ideas presented in the Dr Fletcher scenes are almost certainly pseudo-scientific hokum, used purely for narrative purposes.

But it is also true that there is much yet to be discovered in the fascinating field of neuroscience and human psychology; the surprises that lie ahead might remind us of the Arthur C Clarke observation that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

The point is that by using this framework for his super-villain tale, Shyamalan has made a film that appears mellower, more grounded than The Sixth Sense or Signs, but still has some very unsettling currents flowing beneath its surface.

Split invites a viewer to wonder about the line between what we label “rational” and “mystical”, and Shyamalan is often most effective as a storyteller when examining this divide without coming down heavily on one or the other side.

Writer

Jai Arjun Singh Jai Arjun Singh @jaiarjun

Writer and critic. Blogs at Jabberwock (http://jaiarjun.blogspot.in ). Author of Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983. Edited The Popcorn Essayists.

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