I haven’t watched any of M. Night Shyamalan’s films for some time. I think the last one was The Happening, a movie about killer plants. The Last Airbender and After Earth appear to have sent him off the deep end, but he has returned in recent memory with a return to horror with The Visit and now returns with the thriller, Split. (Spoilers ahead).
James McAvoy is Dennis (or Kevin, or Hedwig, or others…I’ll just stick to Dennis), a man with 23 different personalities who kidnaps three girls (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula). What plays out over time is a greater plan that Dennis is hatching that exposes the girls to his multiple personalties and ultimate goal of unleashing his strongest, 24th personality: The Beast.
This film is very Hitchcockian. It’s suspenseful, however it has pacing issues and some of its attempts to keep you in the dark with details gets borderline boring. I actually fell asleep for about 10 minutes after the girls got abducted. It also felt quite predictable with James McAvoy switching personalities; it felt like ‘oh here’s another one, how weird will this one be?’ after a while. The film gets more interesting with the introduction of Dennis’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She has been meeting with Dennis for years and has an understanding of his many personalities. Once she starts to notice that Dennis’s personalities are impersonating others, she grows concerned that Dennis might’ve done something terrible. And he has.
McAvoy is really good in this; at one point playing about 6 different characters within a minute! He looked interesting in the film Filth, dialling it to 11, but in this he really goes for it at a 12. All of the female leads are adequate for their roles, despite not really having much to development apart from the main girl, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy from last year’s The Witch).
The crux of the film appears to be about suffering and trauma and the ways we learn to cope and grow with these things. Split has a very interesting evolutionary view that those who are scarred or who have been through some kind of trauma, are actually the strongest. The splitting of personalities is viewed as some kind of evolutionary device (I don’t quite understand this). This is seen with the two girls, compared with the strange Casey. Her character is the only one that is fleshed out through extremely uncomfortable scenes of molestation from her uncle. You wonder if Casey’s feeling effected at all while the other two girls panic, but she seems to understand something of how to handle Dennis through her own traumatic experiences. For a moment I thought that perhaps she was actually the villain (you know how M. Night movie’s are all about the twist?).
Towards the end of the film there’s a powerful moment when Casey is trapped inside a cage and is forced to take off her long-sleeved shirt, revealing scars on her stomach and arms from her attempts at self-harm. When Dennis (who has fully evolved into The Beast) sees her scars, he says ‘Rejoice.’ There’s a moment of recognition of deep pain at trauma and abuse experienced between the characters. Even the split personalities that we encounter for much of the film in Dennis are themselves singled out and marginalised within his split personalities. This particular scene caused me further reflection: Split may suggest for us something insightful about suffering and trauma; that maybe those who have endured abuse are actually stronger and more able to endure, to survive. The other two girls couldn’t handle themselves in the situation (Dennis as even criticised one of them for being so sheltered). Dennis and Casey are victims of the most horrific things, but they are made stronger and more resilient. Although Dennis and Casey show very different outcomes of how one could handle trauma – Dennis grows stronger, more destructive and violent, while Casey attempts to be empathetic and comes from a place of more inward strength and resilience.
All in all, Split is a flawed but decent thriller. Having not seen any of M. Night Shyamalan’s films for a few years, it was good to see him go back to something creepy and thought provoking. Although ending was quite surprising although I can’t remember Unbreakable for the life of me.