If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know the surprisingly clear premise of Split – the latest film from M. Night Shyamalan. A mysterious man kidnaps three girls and traps them in an unknown location. As they struggle to escape, it would seem that he has accomplices – except it turns out, “they” are him. It’s all him.
James McAvoy is Kevin, the kidnapper who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). We start the film when he is controlled by the stern and OCD-inflicted “Dennis”, kidnapping Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) for a mysterious reason, with his companion personalities, “Ms Patricia” and “Hedwig”. Together, they are considered “the Horde”; three of twenty-three personalities taking turns to be “in the light” (a term for being in control) inside Kevin. This only turns more disturbing, as words like “The Beast” and “sacred food” are whispered by the trio, and the girls, naturally panic-stricken, work towards finding their way out of their jail.
It would seem that thirteen is a lucky number for Shyamalan. 2015’s The Visit was his return to form after a string of embarrassing work. He’s always been a good explorer, asking what-ifs that turn subject matter on their heads, ending them with his signature plot twists. After realising this became his Achilles Heel, he has reinvented himself with a refreshed formula, and Split would reinforce that he is succeeding.
With his latest film, he comes at you three ways – the obvious first being the abduction of the girls and their escape attempts. The second is Casey’s story, that runs parallel in the form of flashbacks, slowly unfurling the reason behind this youth’s erratic behaviour. This explains not only her aloof and uncooperative nature, but also her worldly and calculated maneuvers, relative to the other two girls who are more impulsive.
It is the last that rattles the most, and it lies in the hands of both slayer and savior – the beast’s doctrine that “those who have not suffered are impure” and Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who theorised that those suffering from DID are not lesser human beings with damaged minds, but evolved greater beings, with sometimes supernatural traits. Weaving these three arcs seamlessly into Split is a testament to Shyamalan’s persistent skill.
McAvoy is a notable actor, with enough fluidity to make for a fascinating Kevin. As “Dennis”, he is sombre and uptight, crunching brows and fidgeting with object placements. “Ms. Patricia” comes along and he turns poised and deliberate, with arched eyebrows and tightened lips, holding back her delicious secrets. “Hedwig” is the attention-seeking nine-year-old, who we slowly find out has managed to steal “the light” from “Barry” – the usual benign controller of Kevin.
McAvoy does an admirable job, shifting nuances between the personas. But maybe his recent appearances as the bald Charles Xavier has grown too ingrained, and Kevin’s transformations, though laudable, are not as defined as they should be. And though interesting to watch, and sometimes terrifying to decipher (as to who’s in charge), the mental patient he plays does come across as cliche and a bit of a caricature. Maybe Joaquin Phoenix (Shyamalan’s original choice) would have fared better? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.
Though the early scenes of escape were tense and exciting, the ones with Dr. Fletcher made for some of the most engaging watch. Although therapists are roles that tend to be relegated to help with exposition, Fletcher serves to be an equal and compassionate player in the hide-and-seek game, where she susses out who the controller might be. As she figures out that her theory might be more terrifyingly true than she expected, the audience follows her through her mortification.
Anna Taylor-Joy plays a riveting victim. Her startling fragility and angst as Casey gives the movie its most moving moments. Her quick-thinking and measured moves reveals a survivor honed by the past, and as we get fed her history, we become thankful for it, and yet in the most conflicted of ways. Her ending scene and that withering look has us knowing that she’s in for more monsters to run from, and proves to be the most disturbing takeaway of all.
Shyamalan remains a great storyteller, reinforcing the main plot with small vignettes of charm and wit. In the scenes where “Dennis” masquerades as “Barry”, he makes himself overly effete, and over-populates his speech with fashion trivia, when “Barry” was nothing like that, revealing stereotypes even among personas. In another snippet, as Fletcher shares her theory with her elderly neighbour, and calls her patients superior human beings, the old lady rejects her proposal, calling it rubbish, before picking up her phone and dialling an infomercial.
Split is so many things, and served up by the skillful editing of Luke Clarrocchi and the magnificently atmospheric score by West Dylan Thordson which swings overhead like a metallic guillotine, explores and represents this old adage the best – whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
Great weaving of compelling story arcs and masterful performances by all the main actors makes Split a welcome sophomore return effort by Shyamalan.
First published: www.moviexclusive.com