It’s hard to trust in the director who, just two years ago, tried to convince us that the height of horror was two crazy grandparents terrorizing a little kid who likes to rap and a girl who is filming her life story at, what, twelve? (And I’m trying not to spoil too much of The Visit (2015) here, just in case some of you still want to see it) So when M. Night Shyamalan announced his next project would be about a man with multiple personalities living in his body, I was skeptical. It sounded like a good idea, looked like it might be remotely scary, but considering everything after The Sixth Sense (1999), I have felt let down one too many times. Split finally begins to bridge the gap that Shyamalan has left in his career, proving that he does, in fact, know what he’s doing. While there are many elements of the film that are overdone and shakily performed, one great performance and some truly excellent camera work have put Shyamalan back in a place where I think I can respect his talent.
Kevin (James McAvoy) has been studied and treated for years by Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) for an extreme case of multiple personality disorder. In Kevin’s case, his body houses twenty-three different personalities that all fight each other for time in ‘the light’, or time in control of the body. Three personalities are then compelled to kidnap three teenage girls in order to help bring out the twenty-fourth personality that is feared by the others, since the final personality will likely dominate all the others and compel them to do things against their will. Two wars for survival begin to rage – survival for outsider Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her companions who don’t understand their purpose, and survival for the personalities that Kevin houses within himself.
This movie thrives on the talent of McAvoy, hands down. We see him perform only eight of the twenty-four personalities that he is reported to have, but he absolutely kills each and every one of those personalities. His actions make it perfectly clear that each of these personalities are completely different people – there will be a few physical changes, clothes and glasses and such – but it becomes both impossible to forget that he is only one person and impossible to believe that he is only one person. He breathes life into each character, giving them little quirks and nuances that you can’t imagine seeing unless you were actually watching eight different actors prance across the screen. Each of the characters themselves are interesting too, from the OCD-afflicted and slightly perverted Dennis to the nine-year-old Kanye-loving Hedwig to even the fashion-loving, almost-mothering figure of Barry. For a movie that is all about this man with more personalities in his body than some people have in an entire classroom, you will find yourself actually wishing for him to have more screen time, if only because you want to know what his other personalities are like and what they would do if they came out to play with the others.
While McAvoy is the driving force of Split, that’s not to say that there are no other redeeming qualities of the movie. The suspense of it all is actually pretty amazing. There are several excellent shots that put you in the eyes of the girls that make every move that comes from Kevin twice as threatening, no matter which personality happens to be controlling him at the time. Even little Hedwig gets frightening when your nerves are already standing on end, waiting for something bad to happen that just hasn’t come yet. A lot of the praise can fall on the shoulders of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who was hired after his work on It Follows (2014) was praised as one of the great horror films of recent history.
The movie does have its drawbacks, however. While McAvoy steals every scene he’s in, he didn’t really have to try very hard – most of the other characters don’t seem to really be part of the narrative. The main kidnap victim Casey, played by Taylor-Joy, seems particularly flat, even though she is meant to be the “smart one” of the group. True, her instincts are nearly always right, but when the film first starts out she seems the most unbelievable because of it. Even with what you learn about her backstory later, her reactions to her circumstances seem dry and just plain weird. This leads to a dreadful cycle, however, where her two fellow victims Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) seem to overact in every situation (when really their reactions make perfect sense), which makes them look cliched and Taylor-Joy comes off even more lifeless than before. You will look forward to the scenes with Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher, but mostly because McAvoy will be with her and she will facilitate his great changes in character. Fletcher herself is only so-so.
The real issue I had with this movie was its use of a controversial subject, but not the controversy of how mental illness is portrayed and the notion of transphobia. The portrayal of mental health is a shaky terrain to walk and we all knew that the multiple personalities disorder we were going to see portrayed would be dramatic and overwhelming, because it is a movie. What I wasn’t prepared for (and did not enjoy) was the backstory of Casey, where you learn that she was sexually abused by her uncle at an early age before her father’s death and the uncle became her guardian. This comes to play a decently significant part in the story later, but before the last twenty minutes or so, it has absolutely no bearing on the story at all and it is almost frustrating to cut back to it so many times. Not to mention that the storyline of your main character being raped/sexually abused is now a subject that is being used so often that it is starting to come off a little insensitive. It comes off either as a really forced attempt for us to feel bad for Casey, who has not exactly endeared herself to us in any other way, or it is attempting to make some parallel between sexual abuse and mental disorders, which also seems to be a little clumsy. Everyone is complaining about how Split reenforces the idea that mental illness makes people do bad things, but it seems to me like Casey’s story continues the tradition of turning the victim into little more than a narrative object without any real qualities or personality. It just seems like it’s past time we stopped using that storyline with little to purpose except a relatively closed ending, though the true ending of the film has almost nothing to do with any of the kidnapped girls at all. If anything, all three of them are secondary characters whose stories matter only slightly in the grand scheme of the movie, and they take time away from the backstory we really want to hear – Kevin’s.
In fact, until you get to the ending twist, the girls’ storyline almost makes the ending of the film very abrupt and a little disappointing. Thank goodness that Kevin’s story had the last word.
3.5 / 5
It seems like even M. Night Shyamalan can’t resist the siren song of Marvel movie endings.