He’s coming for you….you’re not going to like it.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has shown us dead people, given us the origin of a superhero, and pitted characters against aliens, vengeful plants and depraved grandparents. Now, he’s taken on multiple personalities in his latest horror thriller, Split. For those who felt that M. Night may have lost his way a bit for awhile (the Gore 4 not among them), Split, along with 2015’s The Visit, marks a welcome return to form for the man known for his twisted perspective and twist endings.
Split wastes no time in getting its story going as we meet three teenage girls who are abducted in a parking lot by one Dennis (James McAvoy). In actuality, Dennis, who demonstrates OCD behavior, is just one of 23 personalities exhibited by Kevin, who is suffering from ‘dissociative identity disorder.’ As the girls are held captive, they are introduced to several other of Kevin’s characters, including Patricia, a seemingly understanding woman, and Hedwig, a 9-year old boy. In the meantime, Kevin is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who is fascinated by Kevin’s case while trying to help him manage his menagerie. As Kevin’s various personalities grapple with each other, the three girls’ attempt to find ways to escape is becoming more pressing as they learn of a 24th personality, “the Beast,” yet to manifest itself, that has deadly plans for them.
James McAvoy (Professor X in the X-Men franchise) is outstanding as Kevin and company. Though his character possesses 23 distinct personalities, we only see about nine on display here, which, as McAvoy recently stated on the highly entertaining British talker, The Graham Norton Show, is still rather impressive. Because each individual’s traits are so different, in age, sex and temperament, it makes the performance(s) that much more astounding. Watching McAvoy’s demeanor turn on a dime, or when one personality may be trying to disguise itself as another, makes this a portrayal that most surely will be remembered come Oscar time next year. The girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula and Ana-Taylor Joy) are all great in their respective roles. As much as the film relies on McAvoy’s facial expressions, it also depends on the girls’ looks of utter terror, confusion and horror at what they are witnessing. These aren’t, however, simply damsels in distress. They all display varying degress of resourcefulness in dealing with their predicament, with Ana-Taylor, so amazing in last year’s VVitch and Morgan, bringing added depth to her character as we learn more about her via flashbacks. Buckley also does a superb job as the psychiatrist with the unenviable task of maintaining some sense of stability in her patient.
Shyamalan has built his career combining the suspense, surprises and sense of humor associated with Hitchcock and Spielberg, yet remains his own singular talent. Split shows once again what he is capable of, this time as he examines the human psyche and what it is capable of. He poses a number of interesting queries, such as maybe those who appear broken actually aren’t at all. Perhaps those such as Kevin aren’t lesser because of their disorder, but more. Wouldn’t it make sense that someone displaying a number of varying personalities would be using a greater portion of their brain? Since most of us only tap into a fraction of the potential our brain possesses, would it be that far-fetched to think of someone of Kevin’s ilk to be more evolved? That’s interesting material to ponder beyond the basic thriller aspects of the film.
Split would make an excellent companion piece to last year’s terrific 10 Cloverfield Lane, with its protagonists held captive by a disturbed individual and plotting an escape. Shyamalan employs extensive use of close-ups for all his characters as he looks to show us what they may be thinking and feeling. His camera also tends to linger on the girls at times, giving us a sense of how uncomfortable it must be for them in such circumstances.
Without giving anything away, longtime fans of Shyamalan’s work should be especially pleased with the results of this film. For a spell, it looked like M. Night would become an afterthought in Hollywood – the guy who did The Sixth Sense but saw diminishing returns ever since. His partnership with Blumhouse Productions, which gave us 2015’s The Visit, is proving to be quite fruitful and showing him, if not at the top of his game once again, then very near. As we mentioned in our review of The Visit, it was hoped that Shyamalan would one day revisit the world of Unbreakable, his superhero origin film (pre-dating the immense popularity of the genre a short time later). With the current success of Split, considerably more than most anticipated, this could bode well for seeing more of Bruce Willis’ character somewhere down the line, as M. Night has expressed an interest in delving into that character some more. Let’s hope the box office fortunes of Split allow him to do so. Regardless of whether he gets to or not, we’re sure this inventive mind has plenty more thrills up his sleeve.
— review by Brian de Castro