People have been crying out for another half decent M. Night Shyamalan film ever since the resounding success of his earlier masterpieces which included The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable: in Split we finally have it. Shyamalan has traded in big-budget special effects for pure acting and scripted ingenuity, and it is highly satisfying.
We meet our protagonists in the form of the two popular teenage girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and their third wheel Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), enjoying a birthday party together with other friends and family. However things quickly spiral downhill for the trio when they meet Kevin (James McAvoy) and a couple of squirts of chloroform later, the girls wake up in a mysterious underground cell knowing, at this point, nothing about their location or captor.
The film continues in three stages: the first in which the girls, led by the outgoing Claire, attempt to resist Kevin and plot to escape; the second in which we see flashbacks of Casey’s upbringing in an attempt to explain her solidarity and introversion; and the third in which we learn more about James McAvoy’s character Kevin (or Dennis, or Barry, or Patricia, or Hedwig) and his struggles with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) as he attends counselling classes with his shrink, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).
Whilst some of the opening scenes include somewhat dull performances from Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, and only slightly better from Anya Taylor-Joy, this is more than made up for by James McAvoy’s masterful portrayal of the multitude of characters he is tasked with bringing to life. With a small costume change he is able to transform from one of Kevin’s personalities to another, using changes in voice and facial expression to change from a 9 year old boy with a lisp, to a menacing pervert suffering with a severe case of OCD. At times his performance is hysterical and at others, truly terrifying. There were several moments later in the film I found myself digging my nails into the arm rests of my seat. Seriously, Filth and Trance were just a warm up for McAvoy as he flexes his muscles and shows just how diverse and downright scary he can be.
With such a small set and cast, Split was at risk of becoming somewhat repetitive and monotonous – however, as the film progresses and the plot expands, so too does the set and we begin to glean insights into the dark underground abode of Kevin. The clever use of dim lighting and tense music used by Shyamalan creates an “edge of seat” feeling, which is only reinforced by McAvoy’s sudden change in personality, creating an aura of uncertainty and leaving the audience constantly thinking “what will he do next”?
There is also an underlying message of “mind over matter” as Dr Fletcher explains that Kevin can alter his appearance and physical form depending on the personality that is “in the light” at that time. The point is also made that despite society treating people with mental disorders, such as DID, as “inferior”, perhaps people should treat them as equals or “superiors”. However, Split could in fact have a negative effect on the way people with DID are treated, as McAvoy’s characters are stretched beyond the realms of belief and perhaps the reality of Dissociative Identity Disorder is twisted for the big screen.
Despite all the positives, I feel that Shyamalan missed several opportunities to develop and expand some elements of the plot. The score is mainly generic and forgettable, although there are a couple of throwbacks to earlier films – however unless you happen to be a true fan of Shyamalan’s films, you will not pick up on this. All-in-all, Split is a resounding success and a return to form for Shyamalan. I left the cinema entirely satisfied as the plot comes to a fulfilling ending and of course, no M. Night Shyamalan film would be complete without a twist…
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy (Kevin Wendell Crumb), Anya Taylor-Joy (Casey Cooke), Betty Buckley (Dr. Karen Fletcher), Haley Lu Richardson (Claire Benoit), Jessica Sula (Marcia), Brad William Henke (John)
Running Time: 117 Mins