Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Running time: 117 minutes
While it may not reach the heights of his earliest work – but far and away better than his later outings – Split is an intriguing little number from M. Night Shyamalan; scented with the director’s classic style but altogether – and somewhat refreshingly – feeling removed from that ‘Shyamalan’ formula we’ve become accustomed to.
After being abducted in a car park, teenagers Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) soon realise that their kidnapper, Kevin (McAvoy) is far from ordinary. He is in fact, 23 different personalities in one, and with the imminent arrival of feared personality number 24, Casey must play the egos off against one another in a bid for survival.
What made films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable so profound was Shyamalan’s ability to weave the supernatural among deep and meaningful character studies. With focus on a central protagonist, leading to the classic twist ending he has been synonymous for, his work was elegantly layered and gave us something new along those paths that had been previously well-trodden – something that his later work distinctively lacks. Split signals a return to the Shyamalan of old, where plot and narrative rounding feel far less important than character. That character here is in fact characters as Kevin – hosting a frosty, OCD creep called Dennis, an articulate British woman, a gay fashion designer, and a Kanye West loving 9-year old – represents an all in one ensemble that might just be Shyamalan’s most interesting creation of them all. He is cinema’s version of an Edinburgh Fringe one-man play that soon engulfs the entire piece. The all-too familiar horror set-up that the film initially adopts appears to take increasing irrelevance as everything about the film quickly gravitates towards its high-heel, bobble hat, glasses wearing central point. And as the captives gradually lose importance as Kevin and his many personalities take the spotlight, the film moves in equally unpredictable, strange and extreme ways.
Despite the somewhat inevitable Psycho-esque expositional analytics, given to us in an all too convenient and helpful deconstruction by Betty Buckley’s psychologist, Dr Flether, the film retains a degree of mystery, and is perhaps most notable for the absence of its perhaps expected neat twist ending. While he keeps a few surprises up his sleeve – one, in particular, will resonate greatly with die-hard Shyamalan fans -the twist here is that there is no twist; and in doing so, the film takes on a much more welcomed unconventionality. Outcast Casey does inherit the mantle as the film’s heroine, but, refreshingly, rather than someone who screams, shrieks and runs every which way for two hours in hope of escape, she quickly learns to interact with her assailant and is far more methodical in her approach. Through flashbacks, we are shown some nice narrative parallels between her and Kevin, as well as the experiences that ultimately determine how she reacts to the ordeal she finds herself in.
But, crucially, Split is only ever about one person…or people. And McAvoy is truly dazzling as the many different facets of Kevin. The ultimate Jekyll and Hyde archetype, McAvoy expertly alters his mannerisms, tones and accents throughout, becoming – much like the film more widely – an unstable concoction of menace, humour and creepiness. He is both victim and villain; conflicted yet seamless; as unpredictable as he is calculated. As man, woman and child, McAvoy completely immerses himself in a role that, by comparison, actors in the past have racked up the awards for a lot less.
While it occasionally feels tangled in its own complex web, Split is a brave turn by Shyamalan that will likely divide audiences, but has enough suspense, humour and unpredictability to make it more hit than miss for the king of hit and miss.