I am about to lose a lot of film critic legitimacy upfront and admit that M. Night Shyamalan is one of my favorite directors. I don’t think that he’s one of our best directors or anything like that. It’s just that Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs are the reason I am sitting here right now and writing a film review. They’re the films that got me interested in films and I followed Shyamalan’s career closely over the years as a result. He’s made some underappreciated films (The Village, Lady in the Water) and some truly awful films (The Last Airbender, The Happening) but he always makes something idiosyncratic and worthy of dissection. His most recent outing as writer and director before this film, The Visit, indicated that he might well be returning to form. So, does Split continue Shyamalan’s forward momentum or sink a promising reignition of his career before it even starts? I am happy to report that, despite the film’s flaws, the answer seems to be the former.
The protagonist of Split is Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), a high school girl who gets kidnapped after her friend’s birthday party. Casey and the two friends who were in the car with her wind up being held hostage underground by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder. Throughout the course of the film, the girls plot their escape before Kevin can use them all in a ritual to awaken his twenty-fourth personality, named The Beast. We also intermittently spend time with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who gives us all the necessary exposition about DID, as well as Kevin’s past and the nature of his identities.
Right out of the gate, I want to say that Split is a well directed thriller. The movie takes place in a series of incredibly confined spaces but you hardly realize it, as Shyamalan finds new angles and interesting ways to keep things feeling fresh over the course of the film. Shyamalan shouldn’t get all the credit, though, since McAvoy could probably have been acting in an entirely vacant purgatory and remained transfixing throughout. McAvoy has always displayed range, but he really has fun imbuing all of the different personalities with quirks, cadences and traits that make them distinct from each other in noticeable ways. You never forget which personality you’re currently watching on screen because McAvoy makes his face, voice and body language distinct throughout. I think that we have a tendency to heap praise onto actors who go big in the way that McAvoy does in this film but, in this case, it will be praise well deserved.
Now that we’ve talked about the performance, we can address the elephant in the room. Namely, that the film displays a version of dissociative identity disorder that doesn’t require you to suspend your disbelief so much as throw it out the window on the car ride over to the theater. It is not lost on me that the last thing we really needed was another film that depicts the mentally ill as dangerous murders (or the objects of ridicule, as is sometime the case with Kevin’s child persona). I personally found that at some point the film became so detached from reality that it became less offensive. When you actually meet The Beast, we are far enough out that I can’t imagine anyone forming beliefs about how DID works based on this movie.
These unsavory elements aren’t just in the name of having fun. Shyamalan is telling a story about victimization and coping that has real emotion, and real tragedy, behind it. Both Casey and Kevin are victims and the film uses the two characters to explore the psychology of trauma. While I do think the film does this effectively for the most part, the tragedy is a little too real. We’re getting into spoiler territory here but suffice it to say that we learn certain things about the film’s characters that feel way too hard hitting to be comfortably juxtaposed next to the film’s schlocky silliness. These elements are effective on their own but they are undercut by the heightened reality that pervades over the rest of the film. Shyamalan has always had problems with tone. In his previous films, an abiding self seriousness robbed his stories (even his great ones) of a certain sense of fun. In this film, he goes too far to the other end of the spectrum and he’s having a little too much fun where he shouldn’t be.
I don’t want this review to sound too negative since I really did enjoy the movie. It’s a tightly directed thriller with some great performances and an interesting thematic core that merits consideration. The film’s failures just stick out as more interesting to me because it comes so close to sticking the landing and entering into true greatness. As of now, I can only report that it is a good film that I can safely recommend with caveats about the tone and depiction of DID in place. Oh, and the ending is a total showstopper. I can’t speak for anyone else but if you are anything like me then you will really want to get out and see this movie before it gets spoiled for you.