SPLIT: Let’s Twist Again?
James McAvoy shines in M. Night Shyamalan's latest, in which he portrays an array of characters as a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
There was a time when M Night Shyamalan’s name would headline a film, dramatically announced on the poster in bold letters. His name had become a brand; audiences knew to expect a good supernatural thriller.
After starting his craft screenwriting for Stuart Little, he became an instant success when The Sixth Sense was released in 1999. Its atmospheric narrative wowed audiences and critics and its twist end sparked imaginations and fuelled many post pub debates. He continued his run of the supernatural and the suspenseful with Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, cornering a market with his own brand of mystical hyperbole.
However he became a victim of his own success and his career began to falter after the critical and commercial disaster of Lady in the Water and the po-faced plot of The Happening. By the time he made After Earth his name was buried at the bottom of the credits and it was marketed as a Will Smith vehicle. Perhaps some sort of blessing, since the film tanked and the blame fell on the not so fresh prince.
So after some time in the wilderness, Shyamalan dipped his toes gently back into the waters with the lo-fi horror The Visit. Love him or hate him (and there are definitely those who fall in both camps), Hollywood’s former Mr Midas touch is back with the twisty shocker Split.
The set up for Split is prime fodder for Shyamalan’s cinematic proclivities, allowing for manipulation of the narrative to keep the audience in a state of tension and an unreliable protagonist at the heart of proceedings. James McAvoy plays Kevin, though he will be known by many other guises as the film progresses as his character suffers from dissociative identity disorder, with 23 different characters vying for attention in his own headspace.
The film begins with a birthday party for a popular teenage girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), as she and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) prepare to be driven home by her father. As they wait, they feel obliged to give a ride to the loner girl of the class Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who they felt forced to invite to the party in the first place. As the girls wait for Claire’s father to load the car, Dennis, one of Kevin’s more Machiavellian incarnations hijacks the vehicle and drugs the girls into submission.
When the girls come to, they find themselves trapped in a basement prison and their captor is at first aggressive and authoritarian, then calm and mannered and then infantile. They are kept in a state of heightened panic as they never know what is going to come through the door. Casey reveals herself as the most resourceful of the girls; flashbacks disclose her disturbing childhood and a painfully intuitive affliction. She soon realises she must try to befriend Kevin’s childlike persona Hedwig in order to escape the ‘ceremony’ that the girls are to be a part of.
The film then intercuts between the girls plight and Kevin’s interaction with his psychologist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Her examination of his condition becomes an explanative narrative device but she is also an additional heroine to Casey. Her pursuit is to deduce which of Kevin’s personalities she is really dealing with, the implications of the ‘bad ones’ stealing the light and control of his mind and, subsequently his actions.
Dr Fletcher’s compassion and determination to help Kevin also aids the film in the criticism it could face over its portrayal of mental illness. It shows the trauma of a past and does not simply present Kevin as a monster but instead tries to find the man beneath the condition. But the film also uses the situation for its cinematic purpose and soon slips into a race against time for Dr Fletcher to unlock the secret behind Kevin’s newest manifestation. One that is set to surface and will wreak terrifying consequences on his abductees if they are unable to escape.
Back To Business
M Night Shyamalan makes it clear from the offset that he is a director back in the driving seat, from the stark brazen opening credits; it is evident that he has got his groove back and is indulging his Hitchcockian sensibilities with aplomb. Split creates an atmosphere of taut claustrophobia, not only from the underground basement setting but also from the personalities that threaten to engulf Kevin. Shyamalan’s camera travels in long fluid movements that threaten to break into moments of violence at any given second. In one particular nail biting scene involving a coat hanger and a door bolt, he shows he hasn’t lost the knack for ramping up the tension and keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.
But all of this of course hinges on his leading man as Kevin needs to able to elicit empathy alongside his menacing personas. Luckily McAvoy rides the gauntlet in bravura fashion and delivers a powerhouse performance. He uses minimal props to distinguish which person he is to the next and instead he uses his physicality to show which personality is now in control. He displays simple nuances that tell us when the shift has happened and, in one close up sequence, he switches from one to another, his facial contortion used to maximum effect.
There are faults along the way for Split however. The trouble is McAvoy’s omnipresence, which means everyone else appears to get short shrift – particularly Anya Taylor Joy. The young actress’ wide eyed worldly presence that stunned in The Witch isn’t harnessed to its full potential here, whilst the two other abductees barely register in the screen time. Split also loses momentum towards its final act, Shyamalan nearly becomes undone by not giving the audience what they expect. With no big twist the film comes to an almost limp conclusion rather than bowing out with a bang. And we could all do without the obligatory cameo from the director, which always feels like a stuck out sore thumb rather than emulating Alfred’s sly style.
If you can forgive a few missteps, Split will still provide a rollicking slice of entertainment and more thrillers making their way to the big screen is always a welcome addition. If you are the type of viewer that doesn’t buy into Shyalmalan’s style, then there may not be enough in the narrative to persuade you to watch. However, if you want to go with the sly dog, you will see a director returning to a state of past form. And just as you thought he was done giving us the run around, a final moment appears to spark a frisson for many film fans and prove that for Shyamalan, some old habits die hard.
Do yu love or loathe Shyamalan? Is this a return to form? Leave me your thoughts and comments.
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