Split is not about superheroes. Split is not about supervillains. Neither can exist within the film’s framework. Trauma structures everything in its world. Trauma can be used to harm others. Trauma can be used to harm yourself further. Institutions do not care about victims. They will continue to fail victims at every turn. There is no way to share your trauma which will make them understand. Their intellectual and political system will always lose sight of your pain, because that is what it is designed to do. You are not better because you have suffered. You are not worse. These are a handful of truths that Split renders vivid.
There is no honest way to represent mental illness on film except through the cinema of exploitation, in large part because by acknowledging the exploitative nature of turning pain into a commodity you enter into a discursive framework which already acknowledges the counter-articulations of the marginalized. Split is uncomfortable because it turns highly recognizable instances of abuse into pulpy narrative machinations, because it turns real harm into cinematic tension. This is also precisely what makes the film compelling: the kind of psychic damage that is (and will remain) utterly abstract for most viewers is demystified and enters into a deeply familiar filmic language of fear. What better way to make the terror of abuse palpable?
The decision to elide both Kevin and Casey’s actual abuse, which could be read as bourgeois tastefulness, instead, in context, becomes a refusal to totally participate in commodifying histories of abuse. This elision recognizes that intelligibility is the fundamental deficit of most screen representations of trauma, which instead ought to be either fragmented or partial, as narrative logics will inevitably either minimize or misrepresent in this field. There is exploitation here and there is pulp, undeniably, but also the presence of Shyamalan’s perpetually empathetic gaze, albeit in a more tempered form.
Aside from the haziness of the flashbacks, the filmmaking here has been refined to a razor’s edge by the urgency of the subject. Shyamalan speaks as softly as he ever has in Split, but the film nevertheless accumulates numerous moments of stunning clarity. I am thinking here especially of the ending, which articulates total institutional failure using nothing more than a few moments holding on a single gaze and silence. This is juxtaposed with Kevin, who has torn steel bars apart with his bare hands and defied gravity, plaintively asking whether they will finally believe him. Whatever strength was gained from all that suffering falls away in the face of tremendous systematic indifference. Even the doctors that mean well end up dead on the floor because they couldn’t notice someone slipping away from them until it was too late.
My arms are covered in scars which I can’t conceal. They are armor and wound simultaneously (relatedly, is there any more ingenious construction in recent popular cinema than Casey’s layers upon layers of shirts giving way to her only real defense?). My suffering has not ennobled me, has not made me stronger, but it has in some ways hardened me to the world and, with the world being what it is, maybe that’s not a bad thing. I love Split because it encompasses all the ways trauma can be weaponized, for better and worse, almost entirely without moralization. It is one of the few films (with perhaps Halloween II (2009) being the only other recent contender) to realize genre cinema’s potential to embody a new and genuinely radical form of empathy which negates the cliches of liberal humanism. I desperately want more movies like this.