Milo Garner reviews M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological thriller.
Split, the latest film from infamous auteur M. Night Shyamalan, has been heralded as a return to form for the much-maligned director. However, though substantially better than some of his recent output (I’m looking at you, After Earth), this psychological thriller leaves a lot to be desired.
The premise is simple: three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) are kidnapped and locked away by a deranged villain (James McAvoy). The main conceit is that this villain suffers a fantastical version of dissociative identity disorder – he has a “split” personality. Here lie both one of the film’s greatest strengths and one of its most potent disappointments. McAvoy’s performance is a definite highlight: that several distinct characters could be identified through McAvoy’s face alone is testament to the acting talent on display here. Through the various personalities he plays, he changes not only his voice and manner but even the way he moves and emotes. The various personalities also allow the film to play around with tone, with moments where the antagonist is intimidating, bizarre, or in a few sequences openly funny. We see an example of the latter when Hedwig, a child-like and playful personality, takes Casey (the protagonist) to his room for a dance sequence that rivals Oscar Isaac’s similarly juxtaposed capering in Ex Machina.
That said, most of the huge potential offered by such a strong actor when coupled with a concept like this is squandered. This can be seen simply in the limited scale on offer here – the marketing for the film almost promised twenty-three different personalities to be shown off, even if in cameo, but in the film only five receive any substantial screentime, with very brief cameos for three others. Worse is that these personalities rarely intermingle. More often than not the audience are presented with a single personality per scene, and when a different one is presented McAvoy’s wardrobe changes to suit it. This means that, aside for two short scenes, we don’t get to see McAvoy flit from one personality to another, which could have been an even better variation on Gollum’s split identity in The Lord of the Rings. The sense of ambiguity that was present in Gollum (are the characters speaking with Gollum or Sméagol? What is the true relationship or intentions between the two identities?) is also lost, partially due to the clear sartorial distinction between the personalities, but also because of an overload of exposition. We are informed quite early in the film that Kevin (the original individual) has two personalities in particular who are “bad”, while the others are good or at least neutral. This means that we have little to worry about beyond those two (who take up most of the film) and the aptly named “Beast”, who is foreshadowed beyond any hope of surprise. By simplifying what could have been many personalities of varying morality and intentionality to a rather simple dichotomy again undermines both the potential for the film to be interesting, but also to be suspenseful and unnerving.
On the note of the affliction Kevin is beset by in the film, a common criticism must be addressed – that Split purports a problematic or stigmatizing portrayal of dissociative identity disorder (DID). While it technically joins a host of films that present the disorder as synonymous with villainously unhinged (such as De Palma’s Raising Cain), Shyamalan pushes his own ridiculous theory about this fictionalized version of the malady to such a ridiculous place that I feel this portrayal is ultimately harmless in and of itself. To put it briefly, in Split DID causes not only differing mental states, but differing physical states according to the personality in question (think Zelig without the irony). This means, for example, that one of Kevin’s identities has diabetes and requires insulin shots while the others do not. This idea is taken to its logical extremes when Shyamalan introduces the suggestion that DID, rather than being an ailment, is actually an improvement – a superpower. That isn’t to say there isn’t any validity to the claim that certain conditions considered negative might indeed have their benefits (last year’s The Accountant dealt with a similar idea in a less ridiculous but equally ham-fisted fashion), only that to make DID a bona fide superhuman ability feels a little bizarre. This is coupled with a major theme of the film in general – that those who have experienced trauma are stronger (and better) than those who haven’t, which is a strangely sweeping conclusion to come to.
Another issue lies in how these ideas are transmitted, that being mainly through the character of Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She is Kevin’s therapist and a major proponent of the above crackpot theories concerning DID, and is also one of the biggest missteps of the entire film. Foremost is her physical position: being in her grand abode she forces the camera to leave the cramped and uncertain conditions of Kevin’s home semi-regularly, so destroying the tension that limited location films thrive on without supplementing it with anything particularly interesting. Consider Hitchcock’s Rope – the tense nature of that film is created by being trapped with the protagonists for its entire duration with no hope of the camera veering off somewhere else. Shyamalan is clearly focusing more on the antagonist than the protagonist for this film, justifying the decision to abandon Casey’s plotline on occasion, but dramatically his execution is flawed. Another issue with Fletcher’s character is her purpose – that is, as an exposition machine. Line after line of her dialogue is pure expository fluff explaining away any mysteries that might have made the film more compelling, such as Kevin’s past, the exact nature of his disorder, and its possible implications. Though some of this is necessary for the story it could easily have been deployed elsewhere, and to see her Skype call an academic conference just to lay out her theories in the most direct manner possible shows that Shyamalan is more interested in this idea than he is about the film actually working, or at the very least he doesn’t trust his audience to understand it without a very firm guiding hand. This is rather unusual given that Casey, who in counterpoint to Kevin also has a traumatic past, has her own backstory and nature described through use of flashbacks that are far less on-the-nose.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who portrays Casey, is another highlight of the film in terms of acting talent. She captures well the reserved but capable nature of her character. As mentioned above, Casey’s backstory is treated with a modicum more subtlety than Kevin’s (though it could have been stripped back even more) and by using flashbacks the limited location isn’t entirely violated, given that they don’t remove any characters from their positions in the main narrative. The two other girls who accompany Casey seem to have less purpose. Though at the start of the film it seems like there will be some interesting group dynamic between them and Casey, they are soon split up and thrown into disparate rooms – in fact they are barely seen again until the end of the film, where they serve as little more than fodder. Shyamalan also gave one of Kevin’s personalities OCD, meaning if any of the girls get any dirt on their clothes they are forced to strip down – real smooth moves, M. Night. I’m sure you were thinking with your head when you came up with that one.
The film only really comes into its own in its final act, where it drops many of its pretensions to being complex and interesting in favour of a standard monster-thriller fare, and for the better. As is predictable from the start, Kevin finally assumes his final form as the “Beast”, a physically hulking, animalistic predator set on literally eating the pure, because the impure are superior (this last bit is a thesis that the film agrees with, strangely). Use of light (and lack of light) accompanied with a kinetic camera really bring this part of the film alive, and in the moment most of what came before can be forgiven – Shyamalan is finally displaying some genuinely good, tense, and even scary filmmaking. In terms of visuals it should be mentioned that Split looks incredible more or less from start to finish, with a surprisingly warm grade and some outstanding compositions; one particular low angle shot of Mrs. Fletcher’s stairwell almost justifies her inclusion in the story. It also feels obligatory to mention that, being a film by M. Night Shyamalan, there is a twist at the end, but one so out-there it will only be understood by those familiar with his filmography, and only his fans will really appreciate it. Everyone else won’t have a clue, but at this stage it doesn’t seem like Shyamalan really cares.
Split is in UK cinemas now. See the latest trailer below: