Mark Dickson, GWC Principal, Biblical Hebrew, Philosophy
BSc (Major: Physics)(UCT), Dip Th (BISA), MA (NWU)
Warning: this review contains a spoiler
M Night Shyamalan’s Split makes for riveting viewing even if it is a little long.
Shyamalan has directed a string of movies which began with what I think was his best, Sixth Sense, followed by Unbreakable which was also pretty good. But many of the others were disappointing: The Village, The Last Airbender, Lady in the water. The biggest flop was ‘The Happening’ which was nominated for 4 Golden Raspberry Awards in 2008: Worst Actor (Mark Wahlberg), Worst Picture, Worst Director and Worst Screenplay. An earlier film, ‘Signs’, on the other hand was quite good though the twist at the end, the Shyamalan cinematic hallmark, was a bit lame. His most recent offering is Split, which arrived on cinema screens in 2016.
The title refers to the notion of Split personality. In this case we have a story about Kevin who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID – the new name for what we used to call Multiple Personality Disorder). This condition means that a person’s identity is broken up into several separate personalities which in Kevin’s case amounts to 24 distinct individualities. Apparently, those who are afflicted by this uncommon illness are also people who have been victims of abuse when children. Whilst ‘Me, Myself and Irene’ with Jim Carrey made light of the problem, most films and books dealing with this subject reveal a troubling condition indeed. Of course, one could argue that Split is guilty of trivialising an important subject by creating a movie where the trauma of one individual’s struggle with multiple personas is given a sci-fi twist and dished up for consumption by horror fans.
In order to add to the unpleasantness, the story begins when one of Kevin’s personalities abducts 3 young girls and holds them hostage in some sort of underground facility. These frightened teenagers are not subjected to any form of molestation per se (we are told early on that this is not what will happen), but they are informed that a certain hideous beast is going to pay a visit, and they are being kept for him. Another key figure in the plot is a woman psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, who is constantly receiving emails from Kevin’s many personas, most of whom don’t seem to know precisely what the others say and do. Having 23 patients in one, and who all send emails to the doctor at odd hours, and each requiring treatment, this would be enough to create a breakdown for the psychiatrist herself!
The film is well directed, and the role of Kevin is magnificently portrayed by James McAvoy. It could have been gruesome and disturbing (depending on what your thresholds as a viewer are), but it has more of the feel of a lengthy episode of X-files. Clearly, and cleverly, Shyamalan seems to have sneaked this production into cinemas without audiences realising until the film’s final few minutes that the director is deliberately linking Split to a previous movie, Unbreakable.
Multiple personalities in one person will always give pause for thought for someone who believes the Bible. Whilst the fragmenting of the mind of an individual in this way can happen without requiring any supernatural explanation, the account of Jesus confronting the demon possessed man clearly does. Of course, if you don’t believe that demons as unembodied creatures really exist, then you will have been tempted to explain Jesus’ encounter using terminology reserved for some sort of personality disorder. Yet Shyamalan departs from the usual secular medical materialism, and does bring in the supernatural, but in an unusual way: Kevin’s 23 personalities are all portrayed as ‘natural’, yet the 24th is different. And the viewer is told quite soon into the film that this beast is perhaps greater than the 23, and even greater than Kevin who is the host. This troubles the psychiatrist when she hears it, and she reasons that this ‘beast’ must be a figment of the imagination. After all, she has been treating Kevin for some time, and she has become quite familiar with the existing 23 personas, and wouldn’t be expecting any more to turn up. However, in the early stages of the movie as the plot is taking shape, the viewer hears from Dr Fletcher that perhaps the split mind actually opens a door to something beyond the ordinary, possibly a door to another realm. To an auditorium full of delegates, she poses the question: “Is this the ultimate doorway to all things we call unknown? Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?”
As it turns out, this idea becomes a major theme and fuels the viewer’s imagination as the story develops. Towards the end of the movie, the beast, the 24th persona, does indeed materialise, and Kevin’s body changes in appearance, and is able to crawl up walls, and move on the ceiling like a lizard, and run superfast, exert superhuman strength and possess skin impervious to sharp objects, even bullets. In Shyamalan’s universe, there is then this super-natural realm, and it can produce super-human effects. Yet it remains quasi-supernatural, never attaining its own independent status, and is therefore given shape by the human, and controlled by the human mind, perhaps created and located within the human mind, even if deranged. The 24th emergence is therefore in its entirety a human entity, though one that draws on an undefined super-human-realm. The Bible by contrast speaks of a very real independent realm inhabited by real unembodied creatures who are opposed to God, and especially opposed to Jesus since He is the central figure in God’s plan and purposes, and who is in fact God’s King ruling over God’s Kingdom.
The Bible tells us that the Devil is real, and that demons are real too, and can produce real effects. These beings command certain intellectual capabilities, and stand behind some of the crazy ideas and philosophies that have surfaced in world history. Jesus confronted Legion, multiple demons in the Gerasene demoniac, whilst Casey, the young heroine in Split, confronts Horde. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if many moviegoers find something about this Shyamalan supernatural as quite agreeable, and will consider the possibilities and implications well beyond the rolling of the credits. Never mind that there is a Marvel comic book feel to it all, there is in ‘Split’ that X-files ability to harness the unbelievable to make us wonder if in fact there is some truth out there. After all, perhaps we humans indeed have hidden potential, and the brain which only uses 10% of its capability (which is a myth by the way) can ‘unlock’ a door to hidden powers. For such people, there is no personal unembodied evil, certainly no Devil as the Bible teaches. I remember at this point something that Napoleon said: People will believe anything, as long as it isn’t in the Bible.
Shyamalan’s Split also alerts us to some of the inversions in popular culture. It used to be the case that the mention of split-personality would automatically make people think of an individual who has lost integrity of mind, and therefore in need of restoration, and to be returned to a unity of mind. However, through the wisdom of Dr Fletcher, ‘Split’ suggests that such people are not ‘less’ than normal, but greater than normal! Weirdly, Shyamalan conveys the idea that people who have undergone sexual trauma especially in childhood, become ‘pure’, whilst those who have remained innocent, and have been raised in a protective environment that shielded them from such abuse, well, they are the ones who are the impure. That is why Casey’s two teenage fellow prisoners get eaten by the beast. The beast feeds on ‘pure’ girls, a theme not all that new to B grade horror. Except that here, ‘pure’ as defined in ‘Split’ is not something you want to be. In fact, it is Casey’s scars of self-harm and cutting as her way of dealing with years of abuse, it is these marks that finally halt the beast and result in her deliverance. Her scars are her salvation, and she receives insight from the beast, almost religious in the way he says it, that in this moment she should rejoice. And she does. Thanks to the beast, her eyes are opened, and she is empowered, and after her rescue by the police who want to return her to her abusive uncle, Casey refuses to leave the squad car.
But Shyamalan is conveying a warped message. It is simply not true that there can be anything good that emerges from child abuse let alone the thought that the human race might in this way discover its true potential. Whilst in Unbreakable we could barely stomach the lunacy of a fragile man (Mr Glass) orchestrating horrible accidents in an attempt to uncover a human who has the gift of surviving any accident (hence unbreakable), in ‘Split’ we cannot stomach the thought that childhood trauma can provide a new and transforming vision for humanity. Dr Fletcher must be out of her mind. Someone must be if they are to talk like this.
In the Biblical picture of reality, this is not the way to see things. In this telling, purity and scars are also very important. They are vital to the way the Bible talks about real life, but the purity and the scarring are anchored in real history. Jesus came to earth and was supernaturally conceived. He was the only pure man who ever lived, besides one other (if you consider Adam a real person). He was not only pure, but he was God come down to live among us. Jesus was the embodiment of the real supernatural. Everyone who was sick could be healed by Jesus. He performed many miracles. Demons tried to stop him. When they tried to speak, he silenced them. Jesus refused the beast the opportunity to define Gods’ Son or have any authority over him.
The beast wanted to eat him, because in Biblical reality, the beast desires to devour God’s chosen One, and his descendants. The beast actually only wants to devour that sort of purity. He is like a roaring lion. And for 3 days and 3 nights the beast succeeded. But then Jesus raised himself from the dead as he had predicted. And on his new death defying body, he bears saving scars. His wounds are our healing. The marks of crucifixion signal the suffering of the uniquely pure on behalf of the impure, of the masses, of the human race. These marks are an eternal reminder that the Son of God opened a door for humanity. He alone could make possible (and only by his death) an escape from a world under God’s judgement. On the cross Jesus conquered the beast, but what he did there which was even more important, was satisfy God’s demand that impure people be punished by death for all eternity. He died in my place. He was punished so I could be set free. And his scars tell me it is so. Did He not say something like this to Thomas?
In his own unique way, Shyamalan becomes a voice for the beliefs of our culture, that somehow humanity can save itself and open the door by unlocking hidden powers within the brain. It makes for a good sci-fi movie. But the Bible speaks of all of humanity under Gods curse, from which we are powerless to escape, that no amount of self-harm or cutting will ever help, nor our own scars ever be our salvation. Unless they are his scars, and we come to him and ask him to forgive our sins, and save us. It is not those with DID who are in trouble, it is instead our fractured world and we ourselves who are Split, and where the only remedy is the new state of mind when you become a Christian. The man who was possessed by Legion knew all about that!