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‘Split’s’ Biggest Surprise is its Protagonist Problem

Warning: This is spoiler territory. 

Whether you call it a twist, reveal or revelation, Split certainly contains a big surprise that has a lot of people talking.  But for me, the biggest surprise coming out of the film was how shockingly Shyamalan flounders in the protagonist department. And I’m not talking about failing to write a protagonist we “like” or “relate to”, or “care about”, but failing in creating a protagonist at all. Because, seriously, who is the protagonist in Split? Which character has agency in the story, is active, or has a compelling arch?

If your answer is Anya Taylor-Joy’s “Casey” you would be right by default. Certainly she’s the film’s Final Girl, and the movie’s opening moments tell us she’s our hero, but after the initial set-up, Casey is abandoned for long stretches of time, leaving all the active choices to the film’s other characters.

Take for example James McAvoy’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher (played by Betty Buckly) who becomes a sleuth of sorts, digging into CCTV footage for clues and ultimately making bold moves against him. Is she the protagonist? Certainly her action delivers a lot more of the information the movie gives us.

And then there’s Casey’s fellow captors. They may not have flashbacks filling in their backstory, but Shyamalan certainly gives them a lot more to do. Claire makes the film’s first daring escape by hammering the ceiling with her shoe while Casey… guards the door? And it’s Marcia who decides to take action against her aggressor in a bold move to meet McAvoy with physical force while Casey… looks on in shock? We can argue whether these were “smart” choices for those characters to make, but they were at least choices that propelled the narrative.

Remember 10 Cloverfield Lane? Remember agonizing along with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as she attempted to get that cell phone while chained to the wall? Remember when she makes the choice to attack John Goodman during that amazing dinner scene? Smart or not, her actions defined her and the relationships she had with the other characters. Director Dan Trachtenberg made sure to put his audience squarely in her experience and gave her all the agency. We just don’t get that same consideration here.

All this is not to deny that Anya Taylor-Joy is doing great work in the film. Indeed as John Squires rightly points out, her performance is solid, intense and nuanced but the writing is just not there for her character, which is most surprising because this is traditionally where Shyamalan excels. All of his films have rich and memorable main characters, each with specific characteristics, wants and flaws: The Village‘s Ivy Walker, literally blind to the dark truths of her world. Unbreakable‘s David Dunn, a nuanced study of how a normal, flawed family man comes to grips with identity and destiny. Heck, even The Visit gave us a more rounded character in budding filmmaker, Becca.

In Split, Shyamalan defines Casey as a victim and that’s pretty much it. And I would go even farther and suggest how he uses flashbacks to communicate this is not only a bit awkward, but a big storytelling cheat that allows him to avoid figuring out how to build a compelling character in the film proper. So when, during the film’s final moments, Shyamalan asks us to accept that her experience as McAvoy’s prisoner has finally allowed her to overcome her victim-hood through a single decision and action, it just didn’t feel earned to me. But hey, that’s just me.

I liked Split, and there’s a lot to like in it. I think it’s worth celebrating another financial success for M. Night Shyamalan and the fact that it owned the weekend box office means that we’ll be getting more tight thrillers from him in the future. But it’s also my opinion that as a showcase for McAvoy and his 23 personalities, Split ultimately robs us of a protagonist worthy of Shyamalan’s talents.


21 Comments
  • Silhouetters

    ‘Split’s’ Biggest Surprising is its Protagonist Problem.
    Wow that title is on a completely inhuman level of fucking awful.

  • Micah Unice

    I don’t think it’s appropriate to apply the final girl motif. There are successive kill scenes, but this movie doesn’t present itself as a slasher. It’s not as interested in the kills so much as in the psychology of the players. I would posit that the actual protagonist is Crumb himself, et al. the identities embodied. Casey IS a victim, dulled by circumstance–one who is able to identify with Hedwig, which gets her farther. That’s really all she is until the end. I would also argue that in that last scene where she refuses to get out of the cop car, she’s taking a first step beyond the confines of her victimhood. Or at least about to. That’s just a personal interpretation.

    • you can have a final girl outside slashers. her character being quiet and downbeat isn’t hugely different from jamie lee curtis in the 1st halloween, she has the virginal thing from being mostly covered up the whole time while the other two wind up in their underwear, she starts to find inner strength like you said. if he’d seemed dead from the shotgun blast (and then revived after her rescue) she would have had the total cliche final girl plotline.

    • ps, if you want to see an interesting take on victimhood, check out Martyrs. the original is one of my absolute favorite movies; the remake isn’t nearly as good, but it has its own personality and on its own merits it’s not bad (i’d call it more of a reinterpretation).

  • Vincent Kane

    IMO Kasey’s whole ordeal is through inaction or not doing things a typical “heroine” usually does. The other two girls constantly try to make things happen and get in trouble and are the first to be killed. Just like with young Kasey deciding not to shoot her uncle. Sadly her decision not to shoot her uncle causes her years of abuse but also is what saved her life. She just continued her non decision making in a sense and again it saved her life.

    But I get it let’s keep having the stereotypical final girl who is a bad ass and a rebel that somehow outwits and out fights the villian.

    • My thoughts exactly. She’s the “anti final girl”. Is that as compelling? Probably not, but it was certainly the point.

      • Vincent Kane

        Yes Thank you “Anti Final Girl’ is is a great term for Kasey in this film.

        • khail19

          we’re at a point where we’re deconstructing the final girl. i love it.

    • how did not shooting her uncle save her life? and it didn’t seem to me like she decided not to shoot him; she was just too overwhelmed and scared to pull the trigger and he grabbed the gun from her.
      as for her during the movie, i don’t think it was inaction at all (though i agree it’s not typical, which is great). she was doing plenty — she realized they could escape through the walls(/ceiling) and started searching, she tried repeatedly to manipulate the young personality, she brought out kevin, she frigging shot the dude — she just wasn’t impulsive about it like the other two, she didn’t take unnecessary risks. like she says near the beginning, they needed to understand the situation before they reacted.

  • andrew

    why does there have to be a protagonist? especially when the film succeeds with its storytelling.

  • THE God

    Casey is a victim… just because she didn’t kick ass like super heroes doesn’t mean she wasn’t bad a$$. Her strength was in her suffering!!!

    • sounds like you buy the beast’s philosophy. sometimes suffering can make a person stronger (especially if it’s short term), but long term suffering like she presumably gets with her uncle saps people’s ability to resist, they just continue surviving and suffering.

  • Nahuel Benvenuto

    dude dont be an asshole watch the titles spoilers

  • Shawn Simpson

    So you write article after article touting up Lights Out like its a god send and Blair Witch like its the greatest thing since sliced bread(I like it a lot but cmon now) but now that a legitimately great film comes out all I see is article after article tearing it apart and shitting all over it. Its a villain origin story!! It doesn’t need a protagonist when the entire purpose is to get to know the villain for a future film. Casey was a great female lead because she used her suffering to help her in a situation that basically any other person would flounder and fail in. I love this site but damn the hate pieces on good films and the cock gobbling of the bad ones is just insane.

    • THGrimm

      I just saw Split last night and didn’t think of it as a villain origin story, but you’re so right! He and Bruce Willis are definitely going to square off. Btw: his appearance in the end was a wonderful bit I wasn’t expecting.

  • Hash-Slinging Slasher

    Wait, wait, wait… you think the film has a problem in that it didn’t have a storywriting 101 character arc that’s in every… I just… I can’t…. How did you get here and who invited you?

    • that’s basically what i came here to say. being upset that the movie isn’t sufficiently cookie-cutter is a really efficient way of telling me a) the movie is interesting b) this reviewer is not.

  • LCSnoogs

    It’s interesting that this site gave Split a good review and also posted two negative opinion pieces about it. This is like the opposite of The Witch. I haven’t agreed with any of the opinion articles so far though. They have actually made me appreciate the movie more, so it is good to hear these different opinions.

    For this article, you skipped the part where Casey tries manipulating Hedwig to set her free. It didn’t work, but it was a smarter plan than what the other girls thought of. She was more active in this movie than you give her credit for in this article.

    I would also say that the end of the movie doesn’t say that she overcame her victim-hood. She could have gone back home to continue living with her uncle. It’s her choice, and we didn’t get to see what choice she made. I would like to think she told the cop about her uncle, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way with people in abusive relationships.

  • Carlton Fisher

    **********SPOILER**************

    Casey and the other women (her two companions and the doctor) aren’t protagonists because the movie isn’t about them. It’s about Kevin/Barry/Dennis/Patricia/The Beast/etc. It’s his origin story. He’s Hannibal Lecter or the Red Skull or Venom. The story is about his becoming The Beast. He has a classic protagonist arc, but he’s an anti-hero. He’s the focal point of the film, and the movie is about his development from who he is at the beginning (a scattered collection of 23 personalities all struggling to be in the light within one body) to The Beast, which is an integrated, “complete” identity. No, he’s not a “good guy,” but protagonists don’t have to be good guys. They are simply the focal points of the narrative whose arcs drive the story.

  • Sykes

    Why do so many people spell arc as arch? S’fuggin’ weird.

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