M Night Shyamalan returns to masterful form with the gleefully silly, highly enjoyable Split.
Mixing B-movie thrills, horror movie suspense and dark comedy, Split is a simple story wrapped in some unnecessary narrative packaging. Three teenage girls are abducted by a man suffering from DID: dissociative identity disorder, or as it’s more commonly known, multiple-personality disorder, the go-to mental illness for Hollywood killers ever since Norman bates put on his dead mother’s dress in Psycho.
The man, Kevin is played by James McAvoy, and if you’re looking for the outlandish, batshit-crazy, showy performance of the year, look no further. He goes all out, and he’s brilliant. Kevin is afflicted with 23 personalities; we get to see several, and it’s a testament to McAvoy that at any given moment each of the characters is recognisable before he says a word.
There is Dennis, the control freak, who moves and speaks with economy; Patricia, the elegant matron; Barry, the effete fashionista; and Hedwig, the naughty, curious little boy with a lisp.
There’s more to Split than McEvoy, of course. The de facto leader of the three girls is Ana Taylor-Joy, and she holds her own with him.
Kevin’s multiple personalities are all broadly drawn. At first glance it might not seem a subtle performance (or set of performances), but as the film progresses and you realise that there are moments when the characters are pretending to be other characters, you realise just how ambitious this film is.
Of course it’s ambitious: the writer-director is M. Night Shyamalan, eager no doubt to show that his days of making turkeys like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender are over, and looking to thrill audiences like he used to you all those years ago with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
This is no simple psycho killer story: Dennis and Patricia have taken control of Kevin’s mind (or ‘stepped into the light’ in the film’s parlance) and have a special plan for the three kidnapped girls that is either psychosis, psychobabble or scientifically legitimate (or possibly all three). Being a Shyamalan movie, the writer-director throws in a lot of misdirection, and he knows when to break the tension with a joke: this is a fun film to watch and puzzle over.
There are a couple of things in Split that probably don’t quite work and will cause some head-scratching, including some flashbacks (which link to the film’s climax, so I won’t spoil them here, but you’ll either go with the premise or come away muttering ‘problematic’).
There are only a handful of directors who know how to build dread effectively, and whatever else you can say about Shyamalan, the dude knows how to give an audience the creeps, and he hasn’t lost his knack for framing a shot. Even a simple moment showing a list of emails on a monitor is creepy-looking.
It also looks amazing, no small feat when you consider most of the film takes place in a basement (it was shot by Mike Gioulakis, who was the cinematographer on It Follows).
Then there is the twist.
Actually, there are a couple of twists, one of which comes during the final credits, so stay in your seat.
Verdict: Nineteen Personalities out of Twenty-Three