We’re surrounded by beasts in the latest horror-thriller by writer, producer and director M. Night Shyamalan. Central to the story is Kevin (James McAvoy) a man exhibiting twenty-three alternate personalities. After taking three teenage girls hostage at a birthday party, he locks them away in his residence below a zoo and personalities “Dennis” and “Patricia” begin to speak of the impending arrival of “The Beast” and the doom this will spell for the girls.
Shyamalan should be commended for treading sensitive ground in the very nature of Kevin’s mental illness, referred to in the film as “Dissociative Identity Disorder.” His condition is given a platform to be spoken about through psychologist character Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) and her interactions with particular personalities who are given “the light”, meaning which personality has taken control of Kevin’s body at that time. The dialogue and story between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher are able to profoundly register with the audience, those interactions are real and we are able to understand that the personalities are cogs in Kevin’s coping mechanism from childhood trauma.
The story unfolds as Dr. Fletcher realises she is no longer speaking to fashionista “Barry”, an extraverted designer with promising creative flare but instead, ‘Dennis’ – one of two personalities previously banned from taking the light. Betty Buckley gives a touching performance and her character’s ways and means of thinking are evidently at the heart of the script; the mind is a complex entity and what it can achieve can be beautiful, but, in contrast, can be monstrous also. As the audience, we whole-heartedly believe she sees sincere potential for Kevin, even if we understand she may be naive to see a happy ending.
The setting for a large portion of the film is miserable, unbeknown to the hostages they are being kept in a squalor basement-style residence underneath a zoo. It is hard to see past the glaringly obvious plot hole here to appreciate Shyamalan’s comments on reality – “Dennis”, a prominent personality throughout the film has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and, as we see in Dr. Fletcher’s consultation room, “Dennis” likes every item to have its place. It does seem difficult to believe that when owning the light that he would find it acceptable to live in these conditions given his pickiness when he is out. Still, Shyamalan foreshadows that the true beasts are not who or where we may expect them to be and, despite the questionable choice of an unclean setting, the point cannot be argued that it is bleak and this sets the tone of Split from an early point.
For M. Night Shyamalan, Split shows a memorable return to form. McAvoy shows his acting range and, toward the end of the film, we see him cleverly switch between personalities mid-sentence and we know who it is without any of the distinguishing visual features. Similarly, Anya Taylor-Joy takes the light as her character Casey is brought to the forefront of the story having too suffered childhood trauma. Sitting in the cinema however, the realisation set in that it’s possible the audience didn’t see the real depth to nine-year old “Hedwig.” Yes, those scenes were darkly humorous but it seemed as though that outshone the purpose of this personality – “Hedwig” had music, he was able to have a version of fun that seemed entirely unlikely for Kevin growing up, was this hitting “retry” on childhood?
If you’re here to discover if there was an M. Night Shyamalan twist, the answer is yes and, for followers of his body of work, it is worth watching.
Dir: M. Night Shyamalan
Scr: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Prd: M.Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock
Music: West Dylan Thordson
Running Time: 117 minutes
Split is out in UK cinemas now.