With all the prestigious Oscar-season films out, I wanted to take a break and see something different. To my surprise, a film I felt like seeing was M. Night Shyamalan’s latest. Like most people, I loved The Sixth Sense, but I haven’t watched a Shyamalan film at the cinema since Signs in 2002, a movie so offensively stupid it would have put me off his stuff even without the critical bashing his next few films received. The reviews for this one however were quite decent, hailing it a comeback even, and James McAvoy starring did a lot to sway me, since I’m a big fan.
McAvoy has a kind of sweet face that could easily have doomed him to an endless string of lightweight cutie-patootie roles (Amy Adams had a similar problem before David O. Russell cast her in The Fighter), a fate he’s obviously determined to duck. There was his stellar turn as a vile foul-mouthed cop in Filth, and in Split he’s once again playing a shady individual, with spectacular results. His character, Kevin, has a Dissociative Identity Disorder, and shares his mind with twenty-two other personalities, though we only see a handful of them. McAvoy, always a vibrant screen presence, has tremendous fun with his scenery-chewing performance and manages to successfully distinguish his “characters” through body language, ticks and vocal inflections, going from almost endearing to scary-as-hell in a fraction of a second. There’s a rather fascinating (and most likely wildly unrealistic) system to the way the personalities “come to the light”, wrestle for control and arrange alliances between themselves.
The story has Kevin kidnap three teenage girls, including an introverted school outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who is offered a ride home by chance. The girls are kept in an unidentifiable place somewhere underground, and though Kevin and his other personalities don’t intend any immediate physical harm they keep on making creepy comments about sacrifice that can’t possibly come to any good. Casey, a haunted soul with a tragic personal history told in flashbacks over the course of the film, does the most trying to engage their captor and trick him into letting them escape. The other two girls are less developed and feel like traditional horror archetypes.
Most of the explanation and world-building in the movie comes courtesy of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist who is intensely sympathetic to him and other DID patients. Through their conversations, we learn of an enigmatic twenty-third personality in Kevin’s mind called The Beast, whose existence Dr. Fletcher doubts and who doesn’t sound like anyone you’d like to run into in a dark alley at night.
Split still has some of the usual annoying Shyamalanisms like stilted dialogue and a pointless cameo from the director, but it’s easily one of his better films. It’s fun, trashy and full of weird interesting camera angles, it excels at generating Hitchcockian tension and suspense, and it’s anchored by McAvoy’s freewheeling, entertaining performance. I wish though I didn’t read so much hype about the Big Twist this movie was supposed to have, because a part of my brain spent the entire movie trying to figure out the twist and anticipating the surprise. The revelation however failed to rock my world – it has little to do with the story itself and its effectiveness depends solely on how much you know or care about the thing it refers to.