M Night Shyamalan returns with his 12th directorial feature and for anyone with a passing interest in cinema, there’s really only one question: is this any good? In a word; yes. As a massive fan of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, I’ve always hoped he could reach the heights of these two modern classics. Yes, Signs, and even The Village, proved to be solid efforts, but a gradual decline in quality seemed to plague his movies as time went by. It’s testament to either his resilience or the refusal of Hollywood to give up on such a unique voice, that we’ve been allowed to witness a return to form. I’d like to think it’s a little of both, but either way the Night is starting to look bright once more!
That being said, Split is actually a relatively safe bet in many (sixth) senses. A seemingly low budget thriller with a proven male lead and a compelling story that draws us in as it unfolds. James Mcavoy stars as Kevin, a psychologically disturbed young man who kidnaps 3 teenage girls at the start of the film. Once they become imprisoned, the girls (and the audience) soon come to realise that Kevin suffers from multiple personality disorder. Over time we are exposed to several members of the "Horde”, 23 distinct entities residing in one body. In order to keep things moving, we only really get to know around 4 or 5 of these individuals, as each is permitted to “take the light” by communicating directly with the young women at any given time. Some are unbalanced and threatening, others are nurturing, playful and even innocent.
The bulk of the film’s midsection focuses on how the girls assess their surroundings, the stability of their captor and the best opportunities for escape. Each are shown to have a viewpoint that is reasonable and intelligent, even when their opinions clash. Over time, the more withdrawn and evidently troubled member of the group, Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) moves to the fore and develops a bond with “Hedwig”, the most engaging and approachable member of the "Horde." Casey recognises a kindred spirit in Hedwig and urges her companions to adopt less confrontational methods in their escape attempts. Flash backs to her own childhood provide the rationale for her position and whilst these are provocative, they do disrupt the mounting tension of the film’s main plot and forward trajectory. Perhaps on a second viewing this will seem to less intrusive but in truth it did strike me as such the first go round. In time, we come to learn that a 24th personality or entity is due to emerge. This arrival will serve to seal the fate of the girls one way or another. This plot development is executed very well as whilst we don’t know exactly how this emergence will transpire, the sense of foreboding and creeping menace makes us fearful and uneasy throughout.
One of the 23, Barry (a slightly flamboyant but personable fashion designer) is of particular relevance to the external plot, as he offers himself as the main conduit between the "Horde" and their therapist, Dr Karen Fletcher. Dr Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) is presented as an immensely sympathetic professional who has devoted her entire life to helping the afflicted. Beyond that, she is seen to be a keen advocate for further research. Seeking understanding and ultimately recognition by her peers, that the internal life of her patients can affect physical reality. Her optimism and tenacity prove to be pivotal to the plot as it progresses. This subplot actually helps the film as it provides a chance to see Kevin as a seemingly fully functioning member of society. It also allows us to delve further into the interplay between all the elements within him and how these are balanced in “normal” social interaction. It is a credit to the screenwriting that we manage to retain some level of sympathy for him, as it becomes obvious that he is as much a victim as a perpetrator.
Tonally, the film strikes a convincing balance between realism and the supernatural and this sets the stage for the more fantastic (and sometimes macabre) elements that follow. As with much of Night’s earlier work, there are moments of humour dispersed throughout the film, but these always seem true to the spirit of the characters and never become jarring. Quite the opposite, they help to contextualise the complex nature of mental illness and how this impacts on the standard good vs evil paradigm. Kevin is shown throughout the film to be in torment as he wrestles with control over the more dominant elements of the Horde. His humanity is presented clearly enough to allow the compassion and commitment shown by Dr Fletcher towards him seem justified.
Much praise has already been heaped on Mcavoy regarding his performance and this is well deserved. His ability to transform back and forth between the different entities onscreen is remarkable. What’s even more impressive is that fact that he was only cast a month before production began. Any effects work and CGI are used sparingly and this only adds to the timeless feel of the piece.
I urge anyone reading this review to avoid hunting down spoilers as there are a few that could ruin some neat little surprises that are in store for you. In summary, Split is well worth a look for thriller fans and perhaps for those who favour the thinking man’s horror movie over the more routine gore fest. Jump scares are largely substituted for a more subtle approach but the 15 certificate is still justified as there are stronger and more graphic scenes in the third act.
8 out of 10.