The Final Girl

February 9, 2017

There’s a line of dialogue about halfway through Split,  M. Night Shyamalan’s latest blockbuster, that masterfully illustrates precisely how this film careens smugly off the rails. Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), sympathetic psychiatrist to the movie’s hero (more on this later), sits across from her patient and asks him which of the personae inhabiting his body currently “has the light.” Who is actually in the session with her? Facial tics, body language, speech patterns  — these can all be faked. Is she speaking with “Barry” — the primary identity — or one of “the horde”?

Dr. Fletcher eyes Barry carefully, then asks,

 

“To whom am I speaking with?”

 

It’s a small thing; and it shouldn’t matter, but that small grammatical error made my fists clench.  Everything about this movie testifies to writer/director Shyamalan’s insistence that he be seen as “smart,” even when he overcorrects. I wanted to yell at the screen. Note to Shyamalan: that final “with” is unnecessary.

[Assorted spoilers below the jump. Proceed with caution or whimsical disregard, as is your wont]

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There’s a line of dialogue about halfway through Split,  M. Night Shyamalan’s latest blockbuster, that masterfully illustrates precisely how this film careens smugly off the rails. Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), sympathetic psychiatrist to the movie’s hero (more on this later), sits across from her patient and asks him which of the personae inhabiting his body currently “has the light.” Who is actually in the session with her? Facial tics, body language, speech patterns  — these can all be faked. Is she speaking with “Barry” — the primary identity — or one of “the horde”?

Dr. Fletcher eyes Barry carefully, then asks,

 

“To whom am I speaking with?”

 

It’s a small thing; and it shouldn’t matter, but that small grammatical error made my fists clench.  Everything about this movie testifies to writer/director Shyamalan’s insistence that he be seen as “smart,” even when he overcorrects. I wanted to yell at the screen. Note to Shyamalan: that final “with” is unnecessary.

[Assorted spoilers below the jump. Proceed with caution or whimsical disregard, as is your wont]

 

The plot of Split is fairly straightforward, despite its insistence that its assorted “curveballs” represent something really new and interesting. Casey, Marcia, and Claire, three young women, are abducted by a stranger; they are kept in a dungeon for an undefined period of time while the terror and suspense about their ultimate fate ratchets up incrementally; the group is separated; the violence becomes more personal and more directed; the end. Horror aficionados will note that there’s a crucial step missing here, and it’s therein that the narrative promise of Split is left unfulfilled.

Part of what makes all horror cinema (slasher films, creature features, contagion/invasion allegories, etc.) such a persistent and universal genre of entertainment is the way it taps into a fundamental human need to be scared; but more importantly, it grants the audience and the protagonists a vital measure of catharis.

Order is upset. Bad things happen. The evil are punished. Order is restored.

Characters who have had their autonomy and power forcefully denied reclaim it. The audience can release the breath they’ve been holding.

That catharsis is rarely pretty (it’s not supposed to be); it may very well be temporary;  and one could argue that it’s a convenient excuse for an audience to rationalize its voyeurism, but it’s nevertheless a necessary component of what makes horror cinema work.  This is not to suggest that there’s no way to upend or play around with the narrative and generic conventions of horror — the best directors do. But M. Night Shyamalan is not that director.

It’s clear from the structure and format of Split that Shyamalan is aware of the cultural conversation surrounding horror cinema. There’s a lot we could unpack in the film, but the most striking element is probably what Shyamalan does – or rather, doesn’t do — with one of horror’s most enduring tropes: the final girl. The term, coined by Carol J. Clover in her seminal work, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (1992), refers to horror cinema’s archetypal lone survivor: usually a female who may be bloodied and bowed, but is never broken. These films usually position her at some remove from the other characters in the film — particularly the other women/girls. In juxtaposition to their stereotypical femininity, she is often more athletic, less concerned with appearance, more able to physically meet the demands required to survive the maelstrom of violence the horror film throws at her. It’s not a coincidence that The Final Girl often has an androgynous name:  Jess, Jamie, Sidney. Likewise, although her heterosexuality is assumed, she is often still a virgin (or in some cases, safely married — no illicit and non-procreative sex for our heroine).

In Split, it’s clear from the outset that Casey will be our Final Girl: she is continually framed as separate and distinct from the other girls — starting with the way they are clothed. Marcia and Claire wear comparatively little: short skirts, sweaters, and heels. Casey, on the other hand, wears trousers, boots, and an almost comic level of shirt layers (something that two of the captor’s personalities comment on).  At the beginning of the film, Casey stands alone at a window waiting for a ride home from a classmate’s party — a party that she was invited to only out of politeness. Once in the underground bunker, she takes up residence on one bed, and across the room, Claire and Marsha share the other. Friendless and weird, Casey’s demeanor is nearly as frightening to the other girls as that of their kidnapper. As it happens, it’s only by chance that Casey is in the bunker with them all: Marcia and Claire were the intended targets.

And yet, once the action truly kicks off, Marcia and Claire virtually disappear. They are important only insofar as the movie needs nubile young female bodies upon which to wreak havoc. Narratively, they remain completely undeveloped. They have no inner lives to speak of. They are painted in broad strokes (Claire is the brain; Marcia is the body; Casey is the heart) that are supposed to Mean Something, but it’s hard to care what.  We barely get a chance to meet Marcia and Claire before they are hustled out of the main action of the film, so the emotive punch of their eventual deaths is considerably lessened. The movie doesn’t care about them, and it’s hard for an audience to care, either.

Something different is going on with Casey, however. It’s useful to remember here that the actor playing Casey, Anya Taylor-Joy, played the luminous, afflicted Thomasin in 2015’s horror standout, The Witch.

Taylor-Joy’s open, expressive face is ideal for registering pain and confusion (although it must be said that where her wide-eyed torpor worked to great effect in The Witch, here it’s just frustrating). As Split unspools, we learn that Casey is no stranger to monsters — she’s been sexually abused since early childhood by an uncle. Via flashbacks, we see Casey sharing affectionate moments with her father on a hunting trip, and we watch her learn to hold and shoot a shotgun.

In this case, Chekov’s Gun is a literal gun.

We know that it’s going to reappear later, and will be instrumental to Casey’s salvation. The movie suggests that, of the three abducted girls, Casey’s history makes her the most likely, and most worthy, to survive.

This question, the issue of who is “worthy” to be allowed to live, undergirds the twisted philosophy of Casey’s abductor.  Much of the discussion around Split centers on James McAvoy’s technically brilliant and emotionally-wrenching performance as the film’s villain, Kevin. As a young man with DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder, McAvoy’s character slips between 6 or 7 primary personae (out of a total of 23, we are told) with clarity and tangible affect. Most of Kevin’s identities are “good” people, for what it’s worth: Barry, Owen, Jade, Hedwig. Not that it’s worth much, since they’re easily subsumed by the two others who are responsible for the girls’ abduction and continued imprisonment. And as it happens, there’s a 24th personality, “The Beast.”

It’s actually not a stretch to posit that The Beast is the movie’s true Final Girl, not Casey. Throughout the film, Shyamalan juxtaposes Kevin and Casey’s attempts to maintain control in the face of the monstrous actions of others — even though the monster that Kevin fights is no longer his abusive mother, but his own fractured sense of self. All of his personalities — Barry, the erudite fashion designer; Patricia, the finicky matriarch; Dennis, the detail-obsessed “protector”; and yes, even The Beast — arose out of young Kevin’s desperate will to survive in the face of his mother’s abuse and his father’s abandonment. Like Casey, he’s been victimized. And if anyone is offered horror film’s vaunted catharsis, it’s Kevin/The Beast. He eliminates all obstacles in his way and it is through his inner reserves of strength that he, like Casey, survives to the end.

Because as it happens, Casey’s  Chekov Gun doesn’t go off when she — or the audience — needs it to. Casey is denied the catharsis that The Beast is granted. As a tiny child, Casey is unable to shoot her rapist uncle; he lives to continue tormenting her (and in an additional, galling development, becomes Casey’s legal guardian when her dad dies). And when she takes up convenient arms against Kevin at Split’s end, her shots prove completely ineffective. Becoming The Beast has rendered him invulnerable. Casey survives, but it’s largely through The Beast’s largesse, not through overt action of her own.

It’s a grimly unsatisfying end for Casey, and for the audience. Although Casey is ultimately discovered and liberated from where she’s been kept prisoner, she never gets a true opportunity to enact vengeance upon her captor, which remains one of the fundamental axioms and pleasures of horror film. Instead, the shell-shocked and bleeding Casey stares bleakly ahead as she’s told that, after all she’s experienced, she’s going to be returned to the waiting, loving arms of her uncle.

By now, everyone is aware of the Shyamalan Schtick: you go into one of his films expecting a twist, or some clever bit of hand-wavery and voila! The guy was dead the whole time! Behind the hedges of a social experiment in colonial living where water kills the aliens! There’s no twist in Split, although it’s got a reveal: this film apparently takes place in the same universe as Unbreakable. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Bruce Willis’ reluctant superhero, David, will face off against The Beast in the future. As for Casey? She’s left to endure more horror and degradation. The twist, perhaps, is that despite our expectations, it was never really her movie to begin with.

 

*This piece has been edited to reflect the fact not all of the girls are white, as they were incorrectly labeled before. H/T to @thearetical for reminding the author of that important fact! 

 

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