Intensely captivating! M. Night Shyamalan stages a successful return to the horror-thriller genre in the brilliantly intriguing motion picture Split. When Universal Pictures, arguably the king of the American horror film, Blumhouse Productions, and Shyamalan combine their respective visual storytelling skills, the result is a dynamic thriller full of outstanding twists and turns. Shyamalan, long known for surprise or bizarre endings, provides audiences with the biggest surprise of all: he is back, and it’s a completely satisfying cinematic experience! Beginning with 2015’s The Visit, Shyamalan has been working on a comeback; and Split is the final evidence needed to support his successful return to the silver screen. James McAvoy delivers an outstanding performance–or should I say performances–every minute of the film. Although the concept of building a suspense-thriller around a character with dissociative identify disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is not a new one–after all Norman Bates is the most iconic example. M. Night Shyamalan puts his own spin on the character-type by adding his special blend of what can only be referred to as “shyamalan-ness.” You’ll definitely want to see it again in order to catch everything that you missed the first time.
A film that many psych majors will find fascinating! While the mental divisions of those with dissociative identity disorder have long fascinated and eluded science, it is believed that some can also manifest unique physical attributes for each personality, a cognitive and physiological prism within a single being. Though Kevin (McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him – as well as everyone around him – as the walls between his compartments shatter apart. (IMDb).
Just when you think the movie is going one direction, it throws you for an unpredictable loop. Split provides audiences with the same level of captivation as M. Night delivered in Signs or even in The Visit. Very much character-driven, this film could have easily taken a turn for the campy or par-for-the-course approach to a central character with DID; but Shyamalan proves that a familiar premise can be crafted into a whole new experience. After the incredible success of 1999’s The Sixth Sense, audiences everywhere set the bar for Shyamalan quite high–in fact he was prematurely compared to a 21st century Alfred Hitchcock. While it is highly unlikely that any director will reach the iconic status of Hitchcock, Shyamalan was seen as a director who would provide a similar experience to that which earned Hitchcock the moniker the master of suspense. Evidence of his admiration of Hitchcock can be been in the title sequence of Split. It bares a striking resemblance to the opening title sequence from Psycho.
However, the danger in prematurely setting expectations too high is that you may likely be setting yourself up for disappointment. And that is precisely what happened with Shyamalan. From killer plants to invisible supernatural entities, he began to lose the cache he earned in the early 2000s. M. Night would spend years disappointing audiences to the point that he became a joke–a parody–perfect material for Family Guy. Then just when all hope for Shyamalan to regain the admiration of movie patrons–especially those who enjoy horror/suspense/thrillers–he gives us The Visit in 2015. That film was the glimmer of hope he needed to begin to rebuild his status as a thriller/suspense/horror filmmaker. And with the incredibly satisfying Split, M. Night Shyamalan is BACK!
Films like Psycho and Split only work as well as their respective director and cast–primarily the villain. Obviously, Psycho stands up to the test of time and will forever be a favorite of many cinephiles and a testament to the power of visual storytelling, Split had to be a new experience while still channeling the director that Shyamalan admires and patterns himself after. The success of Split rested upon the performance of McAvoy as Kevin (and the 23 others with a 24th on the horizon). McAvoy’s performance in this film is quite possibly the best of his career. Each identity is clearly seen as individuals. From his facial expressions to his gait to the manner in which he carries himself, every identity is unique in voice and appearance. Even in the middle of a conversation, one identity goes away while another surfaces into “the light.” Although there are only a few identities that have prominence in the diegesis, the others give audiences just enough nuance to register them as having a presence in the subconscious of Kevin.
For all the excellence in cinematic storytelling Split has to offer, there is no denying that it may be controversial in that it uses DID to construct a “beast.” There are already members of the mental-illness community who have expressed disdain for the subject matter and context of the film. However, prematurely dismissing this film as offensive to those suffering from cognitive disorders would be ill-conceived. After screening the film, it is clear that the focus is not on DID itself (or any other cognitive disorder that Kevin may have), nor is Kevin crafted to be an unredeemable monster; but, this film uses DID and the character of Casey (one of the young ladies who is captured at the beginning of the film) as tools through which to explore childhood trauma, abuse, and coping mechanisms. Isn’t that what films do? Push the envelop in an effort to provide a different perspective on an issue, problem, or circumstance? Horror is often concerned with “other” scenes–revealing that which should remain hidden–and Shyamalan does precisely that in Split.
If you enjoy horror, suspense, or thriller films, then you are definitely going to enjoy Split. There is so much to take in, that you may want to watch it again in order to catch everything that you may have missed the first time. Even if you are skeptical or think the content may be offensive to the mental-illness community, you may be surprised that there is a lot that can be gleaned from the narrative. With brilliant performances, excellent writing, and outstanding direction, Split should be on your radar of films to watch this weekend.
Written by R.L. Terry
Edited by J.M. Wead