Three young women are abducted in a car park by Dennis. Waking in a homemade cell, they rapidly come to realise that Dennis is just one of 23 separate and distinct personalities that inhabit the body of Kevin, a young man with dissociative identity disorder (DID). With Hedwig, another of Kevin’s personalities, telling them that another, terrible, personality is coming and it is coming to kill them, they begin their attempt at escape.
18 years ago, M. Night Shyamalan announced himself with a double whammy of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, two films tinged with the supernatural and defined by their twist endings. In fact, Shyamalan perfected the twist ending to such a degree that his style of storytelling featured the art of distraction at its very core. It was very clever, possibly too clever and when it began to fail, when audiences grew tired of his increasingly obscure and solemn attempts at telling a story, Shyamalan turned to big budget spectacles. They also failed and Shyamalan quickly found himself without a niche. Split is his way back, a return to form of sorts and if the box office figures from around the world are anything to go by ($100 million plus) then he really is back, but is it worth the effort?
I can only offer a resounding yes to that question. It is a serious yet ridiculous film, and where Shyamalan seemed to embrace the ridiculous and the preposterous in his later films, he has carefully balanced both here. Split is Shyamalan’s best film since his debut and sophomore efforts of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Both of those featured Bruce Willis giving what were, once his career is picked over in detail, two of his finest screen performances. Split belongs to James McAvoy. He is exceptional, playing six of his 24 personalities during the film, investing in them a different accent or a manner of speech to try define each.
So complete is his transformation from one character to the next that you can tell which personality he is simply with a look or a hand gesture. And yes, while this film is concerned with the abduction of three young women, their plight and struggle for survival comes second to watching McAvoy’s personalities evolve and change and attempt to deal with the impending arrival of the 24th personality, one they call “The Beast.” It is incredible stuff and a few scenes really have to be seen to be believed. Not that Shyamalan makes light of abduction, he does not, but this is not an escape or a survival film. I am almost reluctant to venture any further details for fear of ruining the film.
Part of Shyamalan’s talent is his ability to mix misdirection and essential plot elements together in such a way that the audience questions everything, but without failing off a cliff into confusion. He cleverly builds a horror film that segues into a suspense thriller and back into a horror film without losing the audience. That is Shyamalan’s undeniable skill as a storyteller; his ability to make you question and doubt in equal measure. And that is quite the feat, especially considering the subject matter. What cannot be denied is that this is very tricky material, but Shyamalan handles it, for the most part, very well.
DID is poorly understood and Split has been greeted with more than a few grumbles of dissent, and people claiming that the director is exploiting the condition. I don’t believe that, while I can’t say his depiction of it is subtle or sympathetic, it also was not offensive. It is certainly melodramatic in places (as is a feature of his films – Signs was almost entirely melodrama), in an attempt to emphasise the sinister nature of the personalities controlling Kevin, but it never ridicules the condition and maybe that is due to Betty Buckley’s performance as Dr. Fletcher. Dr. Fletcher is Kevin’s psychiatrist and she attempts to explain that each personality has not only its own psychology but also its own physiology and as such can transform themselves physically as well as mentally. She is the audience’s conduit, a means of making sense of what DID is and how it can affect a person. But yes, she is also a means of conveying drama, of alerting the audience to what may lie within Kevin’s impending 24th personality.
Anna Taylor-Joy plays Casey, the central character of the three abducted girls. She spends the entire film in a wide eyed but controlled state of fear. She is different, she has seen real evil before and uses her knowledge very well, trying to reason with the various personalities. Told in three or four very well shot flashbacks, her backstory is neatly explained and it mirrors arrival of The Beast. Again, I will say no more for fear of spoilers!
Yes, there are a few negatives too. The film takes a turn into slasher territory for a brief while, where the girls are stripped to their underwear and it doesn’t really make sense bar bearing some attempt to titillate the viewer. As with other Shyamalan films, Split does try to be cleverer than it actually is. Spielberg was once criticised during the making of Jaws that having a giant shark jump out of the water and break a boat in two was totally unbelieveable. He replied by saying, “by the end, if I can get the audience in the palm of my hand for the previous two hours, they’ll believe anything.” And how correct he was. Once heralded as the new Spielberg, Shyamalan makes his films with the same confidence, but not necessarily the same skill. His left field endings sometimes feel far more contrived than natural, and there is an element of that on display here too, but nowhere near as much as the ridiculous Lady in the Water or The Happening, the films where the Shyamalan magic totally failed.
While praising Split it must be said that it is very much a formulaic Shyamalan picture and it will not be to everyone’s taste, but a Shyamalan formula film is something we haven’t had for a few years now and it’s almost refreshing. Split is a film designed for fans of his work, or maybe more importantly for those that know how his films work. With that in mind I have one piece of advice – wait until the very, very end as the credits are rolling. I can and will say no more than that.
While not being a classic, Split stands as a very interesting film, one dominated by a central performance from McAvoy that is awards worthy. If you expect to not really know what’s going on until the very end, then this could very much be a film you’ll love as it will keep you guessing throughout and for that alone it is great to have Shyamalan back at his best.