Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities, and must try and escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.
It’s become the norm to expect something a little out of the ordinary from difficult-to-pronounce director M Night Shyamalan. His debut big budget feature, The Sixth Sense, is arguably one of the strongest of any director, and the follow up Unbreakable is regarded by many as the best subversive superhero movie ever. Rounding off a trio of stellar mystery movies was 2005s Signs, and it was all but certain that M Night was the thriller master of the new millennium. Unfortunately his streak of hits wasn’t to last, with lukewarm receptions from The Lady in the Water, a savage mauling from an ill-advised attempt at Avatar with The Last Airbender and finally the preachy, preposterious and downright pants The Happening. But as the saying goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn and M Night was just about to enter a new day.
Starting with writing but not directing the simple but effective Devil (which was originally intended to be the first of a trilogy titled The Night Chronicles, although whatever happened to the other two entries is anyone’s guess) in 2010, M Night seemed to be back on track. But his next release in the directors chair, 2013s spectacularly awful After Earth, cemented his title as the most wildly inconsistent filmmaker in recent memory. 2015s The Visit, however, showed signs of the early 2000s Shyamalan we used to know, so does Split keep his momentum going?
James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In simpler terms, he has 23 different, distinct personalities – some of which aren’t all too kind. When three girls are kidnapped by ‘Dennis’, the most evil of the 23, they must work out which of the people in Kevin’s head could help them escape: before the terrifying emergence of a new identity known only as ‘The Beast’.
Putting such a delicate subject matter on film was always going to open itself up to controversy, and as sure as the sun in the sky, within days articles popped up online blasting the insensitive depiction of a serious mental illness. The reality is it’s going to be impossible to accurately capture what any mental condition is really like, and in today’s world people will complain about absolutely everything – take the recent backlash against Awards darling La La Land for example. In fact, Split never verges on mockery, even in its few comical moments. It’s a testament to McAvoy’s wide acting range, which is somewhat surprising as we’ve not had the privilege of seeing it before now. He effortlessly slips between six (the other 17 are implied, or quickly glimpsed in seconds long videos) unique characters, all of which are completely distinctive from the last – one minute he’s a ten year old boy named Hedwig, the next he’s a mild mannered but dangerous woman named Patricia. The real beauty is there’s never any confusion as to who McAvoy has ‘let into the light’, an even more impressive feat towards the end of the movie when all the identities are fighting for control.
Plot wise, Split is at its weakest. The kidnapping of the three girls is difficult to emotionally invest in, with one of them having a backstory that desperately attempts to make us do so. Contrary to what the trailer suggests too, it is not the crux of the story – that belongs to McAvoy, his inner battles and his relationship with his psychiatrist Karen Fletcher (the wonderfully understanding Betty Buckley). This was a far more entertaining and intriguing narrative strand, but one that frequently got sidetracked for the sake of the three girls.
It wouldn’t be a Shyamalan thriller without some big reveal, and Split delivers – eventually. As far as twists go, this one is a real zinger to fans of Shyamalan’s body of work: it’s almost too good, and no doubt will be what Split will be, unfairly, remembered for when McAvoy’s performance should be the take-away aspect.
McAvoy surprises with his incredible acting range
'The Beast' is an intriguing concept
Girls kidnapping narrative thread isn't engaging
A little too long