Split is a 2017 psychological horror film. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, The Visit), the film stars James McAvoy (X-Men, Filth), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and Betty Buckley (Carrie). The film premiered at Fantastic Fest 2016.
The film follows Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a sufferer of dissociative identity disorder and home to 23 distinct personalities. After kidnapping Casey (Taylor-Joy) and her 2 teenage friends, his personalities begin to shuffle whilst they are being held captive in his basement. His most dominant personality Barry (an effeminate fashion student) attends regular therapy sessions with Dr Fletcher (Buckley). However, as she suspects, other personalities are starting to take over “the light” including the surly Dennis, motherly Miss Patricia and childlike Hedwig. As Dr Fletcher struggles to pinpoint the shifting personalities, a 24th personality “The Beast” begins to form, placing the captive girls in terrible danger.
Split is a great concept, but it’s also an ambitious one and the tone of the film is regularly in flux between high concept thriller and schlocky b-movie. That the film turned out as good as it did is a credit to McAvoy who gives an impressive, if slightly pantomime, performance demonstrating his versatility and retaining his “proper actor” reputation, even in genre films. Shyamalan has crafted a tight script that rarely lags as the tension is kept ramped up at all times and his technical abilities make maximum use of the dingy basement setting. The sound design, particularly towards the end, is excellent and helps the film reach nauseating levels of tension.
The strength of the movie is also its biggest drawback, it is a one man show. The teenage characters are entirely superfluous and, although bold characterisation attempts were made for Taylor-Joy’s character, I found it difficult to care about any of them and eager to see which personality McAvoy would unveil next. Similarly, the Dr Fletcher character is there to provide the Basil exposition and gets lumbered with some of the most wooden pseudo-scientific dialogue in the film. Shyamalan has once again opted to forego his traditional shock twist in favour of a more subtle revelation, however, as I haven’t seen the film that it relates to, I can’t speak to its effectiveness. As with “The Visit” it wisely chooses not to hinge its entire plot on a third act twist, but rather, throws in a little something extra at the end for people that care.
A taut and effective psychological thriller that weaves a convoluted plot around a towering central performance, with more than a few forays into silly territory (zoo Animal hybrid anyone?). Shyamalan never quite decides whether he wants to base his central character in reality or use the film’s key hook, the DID, to craft a supernatural villain. Go into the cinema with a cheesy, exploitation mindset and you’ll lose yourself in McAvoys performance and have a great time. If you go in expecting a clever and complex film with everything wrapped up in a neat package by the end, then you expect too much of M. Night Shyamalan.
**** 4 Stars
What did you think of the film? What did you think of James McAvoy’s performance?