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.