Walking out of the media screening of Split the other night, a film critic and I had a discussion about the film we just saw. It wasn’t the usual feeling out of whether we both enjoyed the preceding film, nor was it a quick talk about any one particular performance. No, with Split, we both agreed that it would be very difficult to discuss this film in a way that doesn’t spoil some aspect of it.
So take that as a warning that, while I will do my best to keep some of the film’s secrets under wraps, a couple of details about the movie may be revealed here. My apologies in advance, but I promise you I mean no harm. In fact, over the past few days I have watched on social media while some folks took joy in giving away all of the movie’s details to unsuspecting folks, which has made me more upset than I was when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was having the same thing done with its twists. For while Split may have nowhere near as much pre-release anticipation, it is still a film that is best to watch with no knowledge of its plot other than what you may have seen in its tv ads, and in the long run I feel that I may have actually liked it better than that return to space.
Split is a welcome return to form for writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and keep your snide “twist” jokes to yourself, because the basic premise of the film works as a twist of sorts from the offset. Advertised as a girls-in-peril kidnapping flick, what we actually receive is a psychological thriller that plays like a reboot of the horror film You’re Next if the “final girl” from that movie had less survivalist training than PTSD from her childhood. Shyamalan’s trademark style is here – tons of expositional dialogue, music cues and static camera shots of actors’ faces to build tension, oddly comedic moments mixed into the horror – to greater effect than has been found since (to put it charitably) The Village, and while the plot may be hard to reconcile for a night’s entertainment for those of us that are familiar with all of the semi recent news stories of women who have been found after years in captivity, Shyamalan is beginning to display the directorial talents that captured everyone’s attention with The Sixth Sense.
James McAvoy captivates as Kevin, a Philadelphian struggling to maintain his life while suffering from dissociative personality disorder, better known to many as multiple personality disorder. He has been receiving treatment from his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), to cope with his having 23 personalities for years; she in turn has become familiar enough with Kevin’s other selves to know when something seems off. So when she keeps receiving emails from him containing only pleas for help, only for it to be blown off by her patient, she’s not wrong in worrying. Kevin’s body has basically been taken over by one malevolent personality – the obsessive-compulsive Dennis – who kidnaps three high school girls (including The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) for a very specific reason. Dennis, along with the stuffy Patricia and nine-year-old Hedwig, have conspired in the crime in order to welcome a rumored 24th personality known only as The Beast, and they promise his appearance will be an unpleasant one for the girls.
Most of the “twists” that people have labeled Shyamalan too dependent on really just boil down to his films going in directions other than they assumed they would go, and Split will be no exception. Besides the main theme of the film being fairly different than many audience members will be expecting, it doesn’t take long to realize that the filmmaker is much more interested in following McAvoy around in his preparations and cover-ups than in watching the girls feverishly try to figure out an escape plan. This is fair, as it doesn’t take long to figure out that time was spent on only giving one of the young women anything resembling a character, which is just as well since Taylor-Joy’s name is at the top of the poster. Her Casey – a young student who has a reputation within her school of being a quiet troublemaker – flashes back to the camping trips she took as a young girl with her father and uncle, and the lessons in coping through horrible situations that these weekend excursions taught her at an early age. We are shown that this is an origin that she ironically shares with Kevin, as his many personalities began to manifest themselves during years of traumatic abuse at the hands of his mother.
There were some worries from many within the mental health field that this film would further marginalize those who suffer from severe mental illnesses upon release, and it may be a valid concern, but it’s hard to believe that anyone watching this film would really take the scenario seriously; Shyamalan certainly isn’t, as the film swerves from one genre to the next by its closing minutes. No, he’s much more interested in revisiting the science fiction and supernatural questions that were raised in his earlier works: here, the questions raised include how mind over matter helps create illness in only one personality and not within the others, and if believing in a myth strong enough can cause physical attributes to change. While these questions bog the film down in ideology that it can’t really carry the weight of toward the end, causing it to fail to reach the lofty heights of the director’s The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, Split still offers hope that Shyamalan is back.