James McAvoy adopts a variety of personas in Split, a thriller best watched for Anya Taylor-Joy's hypnotic performance, Ryan writes...
After 2015‘s The Visit, writer-director-producer M Night Shyamalan again teams with indie studio Blumhouse to make another lean genre piece, albeit rather less sinewy than that twisty, blackly comic found-footage flick. In Split, James McAvoy wears a variety outfits as Kevin a sufferer of dissociative personality disorder whose 23 other personalities all vie for their time “in the light”, to borrow a phrase from his psychiatrist, Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).
We don’t get to see every one of the fractured people tucked away in Kevin’s mind, but the ones we do meet include overbearing mother figure, Patricia; Hedwig, a nine-year-old kid who likes hip-hop; and Dennis, a chap who leers through huge spectacles like his namesake, Dennis Nilsen.
According to Dr Fletcher, Kevin and his other personalities have been well behaved for about a decade, but then Dennis goes and kidnaps three teenagers: troubled Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) and the more outgoing Claire (Harry Lu Richardson) and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Locked up in Kevin’s basement, the three plot their escape, Claire and Marcia planning on using violence while Casey favours a more cunning approach: learning more about Kevin’s alter-egos in the hope of finding a means of escape. Meanwhile, Kevin’s personalities all begin talking darkly about the reason for the girls’ kidnap: something to do with a ceremony, and a 24th personality they unnervingly refer to as The Beast.
In his best movies, Shyamalan excels at taking an existing genre and pushing it slightly out of square, so that a supernatural chiller becomes a moving portrait of a psychologist and his young patient (The Sixth Sense), or a drama about survivor’s guilt flips over into superhero territory (Unbreakable). Not everyone was necessarily convinced by The Visit, but for this writer, its fusion of horror, fairytale trappings and pitch-dark humour worked better than anything Shyamalan’s made in years. In terms of style, he’s pulled off the same trick again in Split; he riffs on Hitchcock camera moves and story beats a bit like Brian De Palma used to in the 70s and 80s – and, indeed, there are vague similarities between Split and De Palma’s less celebrated thriller, Raising Cain.
While Split is sharp in stylistic terms, it feels somewhat less certain tonally; in certain stretches it toys with straight slasher-horror, before slipping uncomfortably into grisly humour and then back again with something of a lurch. McAvoy evidently relishes the chance to play so many roles in one film, but the result sometimes look more like an impressionist running through his routine of famous voices than a real, desperately ill human being. And this latter aspect might be Split’s stickier aspect; Shyamalan makes concerted efforts to present Kevin as a relatable character rather than a stock villain – not unlike Michael Powell’s handling of the killer in his once infamous (and since rehabilitated, at least in the eyes of critics) Peeping Tom.
Again, the problem comes from suspension of disbelief; McAvoy’s various guises are too broad, too awkwardly amusing to really accept as believable. Shyamalan’s rambling dialogue doesn’t help, particularly when Dr Fletcher starts rattling on about her pet theory that people with DID have supernatural powers. The lack of discipline in the overblown dialogue extends to the film’s duration, which could’ve benefited from a bit of tightening up; the final third has a few effective shocks – particularly given the PG-13 rating – but boy, does Split take a long time getting there.
The unqualified success of Split, I’d argue, is Anya Taylor-Joy. She was magnificent in The Witch, and she’s superb here: believably smart, courageous and thoroughly magnetic. In fact, I can’t help wondering whether Split might have been a better film had the lead role gone to Taylor-Joy, playing a female maniac who keeps teenage men locked up in her basement. Certainly, it might have helped Shyamalan side-step some of the more unseemly moments here, such as his characters’ tendency to shed their clothes as the story wears on.
In its most effective moments, Split is a decent genre mash-up. At the same time, it’s also a bit of a muddle: who’s it aimed at? Horror fans will find it all a bit tame; those hoping for an intelligent thriller in the mould of, say, Manhunter or Silence Of The Lambs might be dismayed at all the pseudo-science and teenagers flapping about in skimpy bras.
Vaguely seedy, screamingly camp, a bit exploitative and hardly sensitive when it comes to issues of mental health, Split’s a curious new chapter in the meandering career of M Night Shyamalan: a fitfully entertaining movie but one whose fractured elements never quite cohere into a satisfying whole.
Split is out in UK cinemas on the 20th January.