Split (2016) (117 min)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Haley Lu Richardson.
Few directors have experienced quite as public a fall from grace as M. Night Shyamalan. After his hugely popular debut The Sixth Sense, the director’s subsequent features appeared to be a series of close misses or shots that veered way off target.
I can’t say I have always wholeheartedly embraced his movies, but I have found that Mr. Shyamalan’s singular imagination usually comes up with an interesting and unusual premise. His characters too, prove to be more intriguing and engaging than most. At his best or at his worst, there really isn’t anyone quite like him.
The problems tend to arise depending on how he chooses to present his imaginative premise and the pressure he feels in having to insert the now inevitable ‘twist’ that has become his trademark.
The Visit was one of last year’s most underrated horror surprises and his new feature entitled Split, seems to indicate that he may really be getting some of his mojo back. Split is intense enough, weird enough and shocking enough to be almost instantly recognizable as a Shyamalan movie.
After a teen birthday party, three young women; friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and loner Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are about to be driven home by Claire’s dad. In the parking lot, Claire and Marcia are too busy giggling at pictures on their phones to realise that the man who just slipped into the driver’s seat is not dad, but instead, a shaven-headed man (James McAvoy) with mysterious intentions. A few shots of aerosol chloroform later and the trio wake up in a locked, windowless room in a basement, adjacent to a sparkling, tiled ensuite bathroom.
Since this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Split does not unfold as a predictable ‘young girls in peril trying to escape their captor’ movie. Their abductor, named ‘Dennis’, is seemingly having heated discussions with other conspirators outside their room, but when he turns up at their door in a skirt and heels or as a nine-year-old boy, it soon becomes clear that they are not dealing with the usual sexual predator or murderous pervert – they’re actually dealing with a crowd of ‘people’- 23 to be exact.
When their captor ventures outside to keep appointments with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (a delightful Betty Buckley) it is revealed that he has Dissociative Identity Disorder (which used to be called ‘multiple personality disorder’). His real name is Kevin, and although he visits his psychiatrist as ‘Barry’, a fastidious fashion designer, Dr. Fletcher know these personalities of old and suspects that it is actually another personality, the devious ‘Dennis’, that may be posing as the harmless ‘Barry’. This raises a red flag that her patient may be heading towards a breakdown.
Though Kevin has revealed 23 ‘alters’ to his trusted psychiatrist, in an unseen psychological war raging between his personalities over control of his body, there remains one still submerged who is poised to emerge and dominate the others – one which they fear and have dubbed ‘the Beast’ and is spoken of in apocalyptic language. He is ‘on the move’ and the purpose of the kidnapped girls is to be ‘offerings’ of some kind.
James McAvoy, in multiple guises, gets the chance to play several completely different characters – a cold, calculating brute with OCD, a genteel but manipulative female, an epicene fashion aficionado, and a lisping nine-year-old child – with the Scottish actor adopting a different voice and posture for each one. It’s a testament to McAvoy’s skill that we get to know and recognize each personality based entirely on his demeanour and body language. McAvoy’s entertaining, brave, tour-de-force performance is at least one reason to see Split.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who came to prominence last year by her standout performance in The Witch, makes for a quiet, canny and tragically empathetic protagonist. Her character’s dark past is revealed in flashbacks in which, as a very young child, her father taught her how to hunt, while her bear-like uncle wheedled her into other activities.
This initially feels exploitative but at least it gives us a clue to her watchful, self-contained character and her calculated attempts to engage with her captor’s more pliant personalities.
In Split Shyamalan’s positive and negative traits are in evidence – the dialogue can occasionally become stilted and there is a fair amount of exposition necessary. Much has been said about Shyamalan’s penchant for twist endings, and this feature informs much of his actual filmmaking, as even character introductions or expository dialogue are sometimes framed as surprise. There are, as ever, some comedic moments, but also ones of genuine tension, disgust, and dread.
The problem with Split is that Shyamalan’s treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder is presented as a contrivance for some of the more unorthodox qualities of his villain. He paints mental illness and child abuse as a potential source of supernatural or superhuman power. This can sometimes seem a little insensitive, and is only rescued by the distraction of McAvoy’s bravura performance.
The other problem is the last scene, which is not so much a ‘twist’ as a ‘huh?’ moment. It will cause a gasp amongst Shyamalan aficionados, but may be lost on many other moviegoers. All in all Split may prove to be a bit of a ‘Marmite’ movie, one that is likely to cause a split within its audience too.