There is no denying that Multiple Personality Disorders, or what we layman commonly refer to as split personalities, are about as close to a classic Hollywood horror trope as you can get. From Alfred Hitchcock’s genre-defining flick Psycho (1960) to David Fincher’s hit film Fight Club (1999), movie-makers have created a major market out of exploiting such mental illness. And while their intentions are usually more profit-based than pure, it must be said that in the process they have also shed light on an issue rarely discussed. So, while it is understandable that the most politically correct among us have been calling for a boycott of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film Split (2017) thanks to its representation of this disease, it is also understandable that others may find the film a guilty pleasure, which is thought-provoking, suspenseful and superbly acted.
Split builds its universe around Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man who was abused as a child and subsequently splintered his psyche into 23 distinct personalities to cope. Among them are fashion designer Barry, diabetes afflicted Jade, evangelical Miss Patricia, obsessive-compulsive Dennis and nine-year-old Kanye West-loving Hedwig. We are introduced to these alters one-by-one through the eyes of the trio of teenage girls they kidnap and imprison in an underground bunker. Knocked out in a parking lot after a birthday party, feisty friends Claire and Marcia are keen to kick down walls and fight for their lives, while our soon-to-be leading lady and heroine Casey, a detention-loving outsider whose back-story bares a rather striking resemblance to Kevin’s, is happy to suss out the situation before she makes her move. The girls soon realise they are up against no normal foe though, when the alters begin to mention a menacing and malevolent final personality known only as ‘The Beast’. With their sacrifice to the monster looming, what follows is a daring and disturbing high stakes game of cat and mouse.
After years of half-hearted twists, poor cinematic choices and frankly squalid scripts, Shyamalan is surprisingly centred here. With controlled camera movements, sleek dialogue and excellent performances littered throughout, it is almost like we could forget his career-destroying misfires The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) ever existed. Sadly, there are some things that even time can’t obliterate. Split is at least a world away from these, swapping a tunnel vision focus on the ultimate twist turn in favour of an electrifying pace and curious link to one of Shyamalan’s forgotten gems. A team-up with It Follows (2015) cinematographer Mike Goulka’s proves fruitful too, the duo cranking up the intimate and claustrophobic camera work to remind us how horror movies are defined by what they don’t show rather than what they do. A camera that hardly dares leave a protagonist invites such dread when it does.
James McAvoy is a tour-de-force as far as the acting goes, dominating every moment he is on screen with impassioned energy and empathy. Never once do we struggle to know which alter he is inhabiting, his mannerisms accurate down to the last eyebrow lift or goofy grin. Elevating the villain is never an easy feat, but here the Scotsman succeeds on charm alone. Relative newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy triumphs too, holding her own against her more experienced co-stars and building on her phenomenal breakthrough in The Witch (2015). Such ethereal power and persuasion is rarely found in Hollywood stars, especially so young. With this just the start of her career, it will be a pleasure just to see where it goes. The remainder of the cast provide solid support, but are never given enough screen-time or backstory to truly develop. Best of them is familiar face Betty Buckley in the rather redundant role of Dr Fletcher, if only for the fact she is finally given the chance to redeem herself after her involvement in The Happening (2008).
With such incredible performances, it is easy to overlook Split’s faults, but that is not to say they don’t exist. For instance, Kevin’s frustratingly dense therapist Dr Fletcher, who is so caught up in trying to prove that the damaged among us can become the next step in evolution based on their thoughts alone that she fails to see it is happening with Kevin’s latest beastly alter. Similarly, for all the taut suspense and genuine intrigue Shyamalan builds, Split is let down by the most basic of movie problems – the lack of a streamlined narrative. Bouncing back and forth between Kevin’s therapist’s office and the underground lair rips the audience out of the high-tension game. Add in the jarring flashbacks to Casey’s youth that seem strangely out of place and we are left with an untidy mess that would set of Dennis’s OCD for sure.
Despite it’s fractured premise, Split proves to be Shyamalan’s most straightforward film to date. Perhaps that’s the reason it is proving to be one of his most successful too. But in classic Shyamalan style it wouldn’t be complete without somewhat of a twist. And whether you take that as the monster lurking beneath the surface that is not the simple Criminal Minds (2005) type we have been brought up to expect, or as the cameo that proves a shared-universe theory, is up to you. So long as you suspend disbelief, prepare for upturned superhero stereotypes and try not to overthink the thoughtless science, you’ll walk away happy. And hopefully, talking about why people are the way they are.
Rating: 3 Personalities out of 5
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