Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Anya Taylor-Joy
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
1 hr., 57 mins.
Ever seen a movie where you just want to interrupt and ask the director, “Hey, what the Sam Hill is going on here?”
Welcome to Split, a movie about dissociative identity disorder (DID) that manages to horrify and befuddle at the same time. It’s like having a bad dream. You wake up terrified and gasping without quite understanding what the dream was about.
Like the subject matter itself, Shyamalan has chosen to tell his story in pieces. In what I call piece 1, Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps three teenage girls — Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — at a birthday party. They are driven to a secret location, where they are locked in a room together.
In this scenario, we meet Kevin’s various identities. There’s Dennis, the tense germaphobe (and mastermind behind the kidnapping); Miss Patricia, the proper British woman; and Hedwig, a mischievous 9-year-old boy. Shyamalan teases the audience with various attempts by the girls to escape and provides clues to the identities of each DID personality.
In piece 2, we meet the identity of Barry, a playful artist and fashion designer with a thick Boston accent who continuously asks for emergency meetings with his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). As we discover, Barry is only one of 23 different personalities.
Fletcher suspects something is wrong. She senses a seismic shift beneath Barry’s playful façade. She’s not even sure it’s Barry addressing her. She’s worked with Kevin for many years and knows Barry’s quirks. More than a specialist, Fletcher has become Barry’s mother figure.
In piece 3, the story shifts to Casey, who at a young age learned to hunt with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and his brother, Uncle John (Brad William Henke). There’s some disturbing behavior going on here, especially from John, which may hint at why Casey is perceived by the other two girls as such a loner.
Shyamalan divides his time between each piece and builds tension among all three scenarios. This eventually leads to the revelation of identity 24, which the rest of McAvoy’s characters call The Beast.
This is probably Shyamalan’s most ambitious film to date. Part psychological thriller, part horror, and part supernatural, he raises the intriguing possibility that the mind might be capable of dividing into many full-fledged personalities, all with distinct capabilities, even superhuman powers.
But as we’ve learned over the last 20 years, Shyamalan doesn’t care about answering the questions he raises or, for that matter, integrating them into the full arc of the film. As a writer, he’s always loose with the storyline and tends to jump around without filling in the holes. So either you just go along for the ride or leave the theater frustrated. Take your pick in this case. Just don’t expect the story to make a lot of sense.
On the other hand, the ability of McAvoy to assume multiple personalities is astounding and makes Split more than just another hodgepodge thriller. Indeed, he’s believable in all his manifestations, and each character is quite distinct. Taylor-Joy is also admirable as the film’s chief protagonist, her pensive face and dark eyes a delight to watch.
Shyamalan also knows how to direct. Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Split may have multiple personality problems, but there’s no doubt its cinematic progression toward a horrific ending is electric. I dare you to sit still in the film’s last chapter.
While it leaves many questions floating, including its connection to his earlier film Unbreakable, who can deny that Split is one of Shyamalan’s best thrillers? Poking around the edges of human sanity and toying with sexual deviance, it’s not for the faint of heart. Perhaps that is all we need to understand about Shyamalan as a film director. He’s not a detail guy. Pfft. Details are for academics. He just likes to scare the hell out of you.