Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu
Review: David Stephens
The rather dubious fictional representations of multiple personality disorder (or DID - Dissociative identity disorder) has long been a staple of thrillers and horrors over the years, even before the condition was truly understood. From the more primitive “schizophrenia” of Dr Jekyll and Bruce Banner, to the playful histrionics of genre films like “Identity” (2003) or “Raising Cain” (1992). It’s not hard to see why, as it’s a useful narrative mechanism to wrong-foot the viewer with a warped perspective of events, or just have the lead actor play good/bad roles simultaneously. And now M. Night Shyamalan has utilised the subject. After an age in the “wilderness” with some horrifically received films like “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender”, his return to the genre with “The Visit” was greeted with mostly positivity and enthusiasm … even if some of our team really didn’t embrace it. (“A lot of people liked it. Get over yourself!” – Ed) Ahem … Anyway, with Shyamalan directing and writing, “Split” stars the versatile James McAvoy as the gang-of-one lead character, as well as rising genre actress Anya Taylor-Joy. With the film just opening in cinemas across the US and UK, YGROY goes on a double-date alone, and catches the flick.
It all starts at a birthday party for popular student Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) which is being held in a restaurant. Introverted fellow student Casey (Taylor-Joy) is in attendance but remains apart from the others. As Claire explains, Casey is a seemingly rebellious loner, but she felt obliged to invite her so she wouldn’t be traumatised by the social media feedback. (NB: Welcome to modern society folks!) Following the party, Claire’s father offers a lift to his daughter, Casey and other friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). But as they approach the car, a strange guy (McAvoy) incapacitates the parent and abducts the 3 teenagers, drugging them and taking them to an underground bunker. Whilst the girls come to terms with their imprisonment and the news breaks across the networks, beanie-hatted “Barry” (McAvoy again) visits his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley as Dr. Karen Fletcher) for a chat. It soon becomes apparent that “Barry” is but one persona belonging to Kevin (McAvoy again … obviously). Kevin suffers from an extreme form of DID and houses 23 different personalities, each one differing in skills, age and even gender. Obviously at least one of those is responsible for the kidnappings. Whilst the good doctor documents his condition, a new persona is on the rise and being christened “The Beast” … it doesn’t spell good news for the captive girls or anyone else that Kevin knows…
To put this review (and high rating) into some context, it’s worth mentioning that this particular writer has actually actively disliked all Shyamalan films that have been released after “Signs” (2002). That’s obviously just a singular personal opinion. But even so, it’s come as a very pleasant surprise to find that this latest work is easily his best film since “Unbreakable” (2000) … by a country mile. It looks like his current association with Blumhouse productions has made his mojo come back. And whilst that might make you think “a-ha, plot twist ending ahoy”, that’s not what we mean. It just implies that the story being told isn’t unintentionally funny (“The Happening”) or too cartoonishly outlandish (“After Earth”) to be taken seriously. It has some real heft and a nasty edge skims just below the surface.
Above all it has at least two aces in the hand. First off is McAvoy who gives an absolutely mesmerising turn as the multi-personality afflicted Kevin. Be it the stern OCD “Dennis”, the effete but threatening “Patricia”, or the playful 9 year-old “Hedwig”, he is thoroughly convincing as each “character”. He affects different postures and “tics” for each personality, and subtly different vocals. Even with “Hedwig”, something that could be particularly grating and stupid, he makes it believable. And whilst the moment he kisses Casey and giggles “You might be pregnant now!” is genuinely (and intentionally) hilarious, there’s real steel and a believable threat of violence lurking behind some of the other personalities. And we won’t even mention the emergence of “The Beast” (although …*sigh* … the trailers have already spoiled some of that).
Taylor-Joy more than confirms her abilities here as well, and after “The Witch” and “Morgan” (as flawed as that was) she must now be considered to be one of the best young actresses around. The moment where she delivers a monologue as to why she actively seeks detention is simply a master-class in acting … and she barely blinks in her delivery to camera. Buckley is also very good, especially as her character could have been little more than an exposition device but she totally convinces as a real person in the narrative.
Combined with these special performances and strong leads, Shyamalan also manages to kick it out of the park with some very tense sequences, including; nerve-wracking escape attempts, a brilliant McGuffin regarding a meeting at a train station, and some surprisingly nasty little details in the later stages.
And whilst you shouldn’t expect an obvious “trademark” twist, let’s just say that there are some surprises in there that make for some supremely satisfying moments, that hopefully many people won’t have had spoiled for them. Just don’t look at the Wiki page!!
There are a couple of elements that might not sit well with some people. The aspect of systematic abuse is threaded throughout the narrative, and whilst it’s important to certain developments in the story and is never sensationalised, the use of it can feel a little “off” at times and raises some troubling questions. Likewise the central concept of DID bestowing certain attributes (“You talk as if they have supernatural gifts or powers”) is probably somewhat contentious to those who actually deal with mental health issues. But in the film’s defence, it never pretends to showcase anything as being “realistic” in that respect … at least not in this “world”.
Despite the near-enough 2-hour running time, for once it doesn’t feel overlong. The fact that it concentrates on such a relatively small cast, and that they’re so damned watchable, obviously has a lot to do with that. Also there’s the stylish cinematography (with some expert framing techniques), a moody soundtrack, and an underlying sense of repressed savagery and urgency in the narrative. There is a slight touch of camp about it (especially when McAvoy goes full Norma Bates), but mostly it’s a driven and suspenseful (and sincerely warped) character piece. You’ll leave the cinema with the sincere hope that you haven’t seen the last of certain members in the cast. We’re really looking forward to future films from the Night-man now, and it seems like it’s been a hell of a long time since we could say that with real confidence. And that’s not a split-decision…