Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Kim Director, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, and Betty Buckley.
Three girls must escape their captor, a man with 24 different personalities some of whom are intent on keeping the girls captive and others who are trying to take back control and save them
It’s a given that moviegoers will come into Split (the latest offering from the twist-obsessed M. Night Shyamalan of Signs and Unbreakable fame) salivating for a big game-changing reveal, and while the movie does have some surprises, it’s also not necessarily what’s to be expected. James McAvoy plays a man with disassociative identity disorder, but the mental illness itself is not thrown under the bus to be used as schlocky villain nonsense. There are both good people and bad people that make up the 23 personalities residing in Kevin, who is trying to suppress his more evil incarnations. He’s more of a tormented soul than anything; a byproduct of a hard upbringing.
As entertaining as it is watching McAvoy cycle through multiple characters like a revolving door, equally compelling are the scenes where he visits Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) to help sort out his demons, both literally and figuratively. It’s clear that one of the personalities is seeking help trying to bring attention to his doctor the fact that a far more dangerous side of Kevin has abducted three teenage girls (he seems to struggle with ephebophilia, as he is aroused by watching girls around 17-19 dance nude for his pleasure), meaning that multiple sections of him are aware that he as a whole has done something heinous and that there is some empathy to be found. All parts of him are not a monster, essentially saying that Shyamalan has crafted an intriguing multi-dimensional villain, and arguably one of his most interesting character creations yet.
The personalities themselves are all highly diverse, ranging from more intimidating manifestations to whimsically comedic beings. Hedwig is a nine-year-old child that lives inside Kevin’s body, who is also tempted under various forms of emotional manipulation by the more nefarious personalities to join the dark side so to speak. However, the childlike innocence that makes up Hedwig is also the greatest asset to the girls for finding a way to escape the underground location they are being held hostage in. On another note, the presence of Hedwig allows Shyamalan to balance dramatic horror with a healthy dosage of welcome comedy.
The endgame for all of this is apparently to bring about a 24th personality, simply known as “The Beast”, which is what the evil personalities want. To be honest, these ungrounded, detached elements from reality regarding Split which feature a man physically transforming his own body structure and becoming impervious to all damage is a bit far-fetched for a movie that is mostly about struggling with identity, and without spoiling too much, horrific childhoods involving various forms of abuse. It most certainly does make for some high-tension chase sequences and bloody violence during the final act of the movie, but simply put the first two-thirds are far more engaging, seeing Shyamalan with ambition, operating on something more than just basic horror. This also makes for a slasher third act that drags on a bit too long.
The girls are thankfully not just fodder for the inevitable Beast, as Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is another thoughtfully created character with some traits that run parallel to Kevin. From the opening moments of the movie it can be pinpointed that she is an outcast of her school and may have been subjected to emotional trauma at some point. This could be handled a bit less jarring than countless flashbacks that just feel annoying until the last one, but that’s how most of the narrative comes across; messy and oversaturated with plot points. The script itself is fine though, and even manages time to insert some genre deconstruction jokes.
Still, Split has enough going for it on creativity alone to work as a successful thriller and return to former glory for Shyamalan. The horror maestro directs McAvoy to a completely bonkers performance full of scares and laughs (but most of all, terrific acting, made even more apparent during a scene that sees just about all 23 identities fighting for control at once). However, Anya Taylor-Joy (who is quickly becoming one of the best working actresses today, at such a young age nonetheless) is able to match him every step of the way, garnering empathy and emotional responses even when the flow of the story is off-center. Split doesn’t come together as a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s an intense ride, and certainly much more suited to be released during any other month than the January dumping ground.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★