Split Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Rated PG-13 | 117 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017
In Split, the latest film by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs), James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse) stars as Kevin, a troubled young man who kidnaps three teenage girls: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire (The Edge of Seventeen‘s Haley Lu Richardson).
As Casey and her friends try to escape the underground lair in which they are trapped, they discover that Kevin has dissociative identity disorder, a psychological condition characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality states. According to his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Carrie), Kevin embodies 23 separate personalities of all ages and genders, manifesting unique physical attributes for each.
There’s Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy with a lisp; Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer; Dennis, a muscular brute with OCD; and Patricia, a severe woman who wishes to suppress Kevin forever. As Patricia and Dennis plan to sacrifice the girls to a 24th personality they refer to as “the Beast,” the willful and resourceful Casey must convince one of the personalities within Kevin to help her and her classmates escape.
Following last year’s surprising return to form with The Visit, Shyamalan reunites with producer Jason Blum (The Purge, Insidious, The Gift) for his best work since 2000’s Unbreakable. After a decade of disappointing films including Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth, Shyamalan delivers a Hitchcockian horror-thriller, accented by West Dylan Thordson’s score and the darkly sumptuous cinematography of Mike Gioulakis (It Follows, John Dies at the End).
It’s also a dramatic tour de force, with McAvoy delivering an electrifying performance as he effortlessly moves from one persona to the next, giving each personality its own physicality and emotional depth. He is sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying, but always sympathetic, as a troubled but gifted individual at war with himself. And just like any great flawed character, you hope that the light in Kevin will overpower the darkness, and it’s that struggle that makes Split so incredibly watchable.
Coming off her star-making turn in Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Taylor-Joy gives an equally daring performance as Casey, an outcast with the ability to break down problems by seeing the situation as it is, not how she wants it to be. She’s a survivor and, like Kevin, it’s what is perceived to be “broken” about her that gives her strength. Unlike Marcia and Claire, who want to fight their way out, Casey pits Kevin’s multiple personalities against each other in an attempt to gain freedom.
As a storyteller, Shyamalan often takes a premise inspired by phenomena in the natural world and pushes it into the fantastic realm. Whether it’s clairvoyance in The Sixth Sense, superhuman strength in Unbreakable, or sundowning in The Visit, Shyamalan tells extremely character-driven stories against the backdrop of a larger, more mysterious subject matter. Here, he takes dissociative identity disorder, a condition grounded in reality, and explores how these personalities might manifest physically – like the mutations of the X-Men. What if a persona believes it is an impossibly strong creature with impenetrable skin? Will the body bend to the mind’s will? It’s a provocative idea for a movie and one that Shyamalan executes with precision.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Split – it’s Shyamalan’s take on Psycho, a cheap exploitation film dressed up in the trappings of a psychological thriller, with a fearless, career-best performance by McAvoy. This is a film that should not be spoiled, so I won’t talk too much about the ending, only to say that it legitimately blew my mind. Known for plot twists, Shyamalan certainly has a knack for shifting the perspective of the viewer, but this is less of a twist and more of a revelation, one that has me incredibly excited for what the filmmaker has planned next.