I shouldn’t really ‘review’ things.
I say this because I tend to feel the art I consume. This is something that I couldn’t really verbalize before watching the Ghibli documentary titled Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, in which Miyazaki describes his young assistant as the type of person to watch with her heart instead of her head. That is to say I have been known to absorb pop culture with emotion first and critical thinking last.
Yet there was an element to M. Night Shyamalan’s Split that spoke very clearly to me, specifically because of this ’emotional vocabulary’.
Few critics (professional or casual) have seemingly noticed this visual element. So I am weighing in and will be talking about what I feel is the symbolic use of clothing in the film as a metaphor for mental fortitude. More than that, I would argue that the clothing symbolises the mechanisms we unconsciously put in place to make a situation survivable – the kinds of defences that might cause a person to compartmentalize trauma within different personalities for example, or the kind of hypersensitivity that makes danger instantly recognisable from miles away.
Clothing is a construct much like our conscious and unconscious thought. In some cases it is a jumble sale, in others a deliberate collection, chosen with utmost care. It speaks to who we might be, who we think we are or what we might value and it is something that rarely escapes the notice of others.
Dressed for a birthday party, Claire and Marcia (above) are donned in the kinds of flirtatious, carefree attire you might find on the racks in Forever 21. They are young and attractive, unburdened, optimistic, sunny. Yet they are stripped of this attire very quickly – Claire down to her bra, after her daring attempt to escape fails, and Marcia, firstly down to her bare legs then, rather shockingly, down to her knickers once the plan is foiled.
Their clothing represents the enviable stability of their lives thanks to the work of loving parents, family and friends. Financial security, too, and the kinds of opportunities afforded to them based on zip code, class, age, race etc. have prepared them for a lot of things in life. The possibility of career, marital, monetary and social successes await, perhaps even longer and healthier lives overall.
Relative safety has ill-prepared them for someone like Kevin. When they are faced with a person so outside of their norm, so intent on doing them harm for reasons that escape logic, Claire and Marcia understandably don’t know what to do. They panic. Their mental ‘armor’ -or in this case, clothing- just isn’t strong enough to protect them.
Simply put: of a situation where they must protect their lives at all costs, they know next to nothing.
“We just cried and screamed and we didn’t hurt him because we were afraid to get upset… God, that’s victim-shit!” – Claire Benoit.
Casey, on the other hand, is troubled. She ‘gets detention a lot’, ‘yells at teachers sometimes’, and acts like she ‘isn’t one of us’ – as observed by Claire. There is even a rumour that Casey keeps running away from home. During the final act of the movie we discover why this is but I’ll get to that later.
It is safe to say however… and without trying to sound like Bane… that Casey not only understands what real-world darkness can mean, she was raised in it (moulded by it). To her social detriment, Casey exists in another world and it is one that many others her age, including her fellow captives, thankfully cannot relate to. So she cocoons herself in layers upon layers of ‘protection’.
Her clothes are dark and heavy. An oversized flannel is thrown over a black hoodie, a long-sleeved jersey and a tank top. Her mental defences are strong.
It actually becomes a sort of running joke. At a point roughly mid-way through the movie Casey has been stripped of two layers already (it is important to note that this was done without much fuss or even consideration). ‘Mr. Dennis, he says you wear a lot of shirts’ Hedwig, a nine-year-old alter, reveals during this quiet moment.
‘Mr’ Dennis is a personality who asserts his dominance through coercion – a pattern of sexual aggression well-documented in the animal kingdom. A completely necessary response to Kevin’s abuse at the hands of his mother, Dennis is a personality who was forced to take charge of a terrible situation.
He has an obsessive compulsion to keep clean but (in-keeping with the film’s focus on the handful of identities and their schemes) he uses it to indulge in something far more insidious – watching young girls dance naked.
It is this alter who does most of the stripping (no pun intended, obviously). He is an intimidating, shadowy deviant who walks deserted streets alone at night and abducts little girls in stolen cars; the stereotypical antagonist to the all-american teen girl.
Recognising this boogeyman in the flesh, Claire and Marcia react to the alter with the kinds of terror, urgency and distress one would expect. Casey manages to keep her head, but why?
Flashbacks to Casey’s memories of her uncle John make it clear that she has dealt with someone like Dennis before, the kind that overpowers and manipulates easily for their own gains. We discover that he is the reason she has been trying so desperately to escape her own life; this supposed legal guardian, after the death of her father, is a man who has been molesting Casey since childhood.
In an important -if not disturbing- scene she is asked to join John in a game by undressing. They are pretending to be animals, and animals don’t wear clothes.
Enter: The Beast. With a thickened hide like that of a rhinoceros, the mystery 24th alter cannot be hurt badly; it cannot be tortured physically nor figuratively; its inner defences are so powerful that nothing could even contemplate touching Kevin. Rather than protecting itself in layers however, Kevin’s trauma alone becomes The Beast’s armor and when it emerges from the train, it does so shirtless. An animal.
It is this monster that swiftly tears the jersey from Casey’s back (and wounds her leg) down in the tunnels, leaving her with nothing but a flimsy undershirt. She is down to her last layer of emotional defence.
Only this creature can seemingly break through Casey’s metaphorical guard because unlike Dennis, Patricia, or even her uncle, it is nothing at all like the people she has dealt with before.
In one of many flips in the script, The Beast is to Casey what Patricia/Hedwig/Dennis are to Claire and Marcia… an unknown enemy.
Casey is cornered in the final confrontation. It is then that we see what she is hiding beneath all those clothes: a body covered in scars that look to have healed long ago. It is the kind of secret shame her classmates don’t possess and therefore have no need to hide. Though it’s unclear who inflicted these markings they are instantly recognisable as brands of dysfunction, pain, anger and suffering.
I suppose it would be easy to assume that Shyamalan is implying something here. That physical abuse is the only recognisable or legitimate kind is a stubborn belief that is as dangerous as it is untrue. But I think, like the clothing/armour metaphor, the scars represent that fragile centrepiece at the heart of all people, more so for those isolated to cope with years of trauma on the inside.
The beast recognises these war wounds – what it understands to be the ultimate source of its terrible strength – and lets her live.
The film comes out rather boldly and states (rightly or wrongly) that people who live with what could be considered evil, and bear witness to it every day, are better equipped to comprehend it maybe even to overcome it.
Where Claire and Marcia are literally stripped bare and eaten alive, Casey uses her horrific experiences to navigate the minefield ahead. But she is only able to withstand the nightmare because of the clothing -the psychological defences- she wears, as a result of her own trauma.
Interestingly, One of Kevin’s alters named Barry, the ‘extroverted leader’, is a fashion designer who delights in the artistry of clothes. The piece of which he is apparently most proud is to be hand-printed in newspaper headlines – of what nature, I can’t help but wonder…
Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post about M. Night Shyamalan’s pièce de résistance, Unbreakable. In it, I talked at length about the visual iconography, trademarks and the costumes and how they all came together to communicate a remarkable theme of identity lost and recovered.
Much like Elijah Price’s carefully assembled silhouette in Unbreakable, clothing in Split isn’t just mindless set-dressing. I believe that it is a deliberate representation of the characters themselves and the film’s themes surrounding mental illness, emotional trauma, experience and, above all, survival.