8 out of 10
James McAvoy as Kevin
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
What M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit did for old age dementia, Split does with dissociative identity disorder, and I can’t imagine this movie will have many fans in the mental health community. But what Split does well it does very well, and that’s to entertain and frighten. Sure, it’s pulpy and simplistic, but this is an M. Night Shyamalan film – pulpy is his bread and butter, and the movies of his that work wouldn’t work nearly as well had he approached the subject matter in a more realistic way. Besides, if he’d done that we wouldn’t get the joy of seeing James McAvoy giving the performance of his career. When Split has problems, they are almost every moment he’s not onscreen; when he is, he’s magnetic, terrifying, funny, and even sympathetic. McAvoy is giving 110% here.
Casey (Ana Taylor-Joy) is a reclusive, quiet high schooler, and when she’s invited to a party with her art class, she stands off, alone, waiting for her ride. When Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) offers her a ride home, Casey agrees, but when Claire, Casey, and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are in the car, Claire’s father is brutally attacked outside. Kevin (James McAvoy) quickly chloroforms the girls and they awaken in an underground bunker. It becomes obvious very quickly that Kevin is extraordinarily insane, with 23 separate personalities in his brain. All the personalities are aware of each other, and when one of them takes precedence, Kevin calls it “taking the light.” Two of Kevin’s personalities, Dennis and Victoria, seem to be leading the rest, and Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy personality, tells the girls that Dennis is preparing for the arrival of an entity that Hedwig calls “The Beast.” When the Beast arrives, Hedwig says, very bad things will happen.
Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has been seeing Kevin in many of his various personalities, and for some reason one of Kevin’s personalities keeps emailing her for help. Dr. Fletcher knows that much of the scientific community doesn’t think much of her work with patients of DID, but Kevin is a special case; Fletcher thinks she can get through to him. But Kevin has a larger game in mind, and time is running out for Casey, Claire, and Marcia. The Beast is on the move, and when it gets here, the world is doomed.
An M. Night Shyamalan film wouldn’t be complete without the prerequisite twists and turns that his films tend to make, but, interestingly enough, Split isn’t a movie where Shyamalan does any kind of misdirection. Instead, the fun of Split is watching Shyamalan give the audiences pieces of information one nugget at a time – not only Kevin’s past but Casey’s as well. Casey is no stranger to abuse, it turns out, and her past and Kevin’s past have commonalities that makes her strangely empathetic to Kevin. McAvoy and Taylor-Joy have an interesting cat-and-mouse game they play with each other, and Shyamalan never overplays his hand with them. Kevin’s different personalities are all distinct in their way, but McAvoy also finds connective tissue between all of them; his personalities aren’t above lying and doing a bit of acting of their own to get what they want. We never question Kevin’s insanity, but his personalities are cleverer than they let on. The tension is wondering which personality is in the room at the time, and McAvoy looks thrilled to be playing such a loose cannon of a character.
These days, Shyamalan seems to work best under self-imposed restraints – both The Visit and Split are done by Blumhouse Studios, and I really like this turn his career’s taken because of it. Blumhouse knows why we love Shyamalan’s early work, like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable; Shyamalan has a unique way of bringing the fantastic into a kind of reality; his worlds have real verisimilitude, and the scientific aspects of how Split talks about these real mental health issues can be somewhat forgiven when looked in that light. In the world he’s created for this film, the more outlandish aspects of Kevin can be pardoned, especially in the film’s final act.
Split is Shyamalan’s werewolf movie; Kevin is just as tortured as poor Lawrence Talbot, and just as monstrous when the time is right. Once all the pieces are in play, and it becomes obvious that this movie wants to thrill and entertain, we can forgive Split its story flaws and its liberties with established science. I can say this – the movie killed at Fantastic Fest. The audience reaction was one of those moments that I will cherish for sure; that unexpected synchronicity between audience and filmmaker that is such a joy and adventure, and it keeps me coming to this film festival year after year. Hopefully audiences will feel the same way when Split is released in January 2017. I think they will.