When M.Knight Shyamalan sent James McAvoy the script for his film Split, the actor emailed back “What’s my characters name?” “Um, just read it” McAvoy plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, inflicted with a severe case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) and host to 23 differing identities. His most dangerous, steely personality Dennis kidnaps three teenage girls from a birthday party and keeps them captive in a labyrinth of underground tunnels – home to his ever-changing identity. The three girls are subject to the different egos and their unpredictable behavior.
Patricia, one of the female characters, feigns a caring attitude toward the captives but becomes aggressive at the slightest fault – a sandwich cut at an imperfect angle troubles her. Hedwig, the most popular character among the audience I was with – a nine-year-old boy who loves Kanye West and feels ridiculed by the other identities – enjoys trying to impress the girls and scaring them with the promise of a 24th identity known as the beast. He suggests that this untapped ego will sacrifice them for sinister unknown purposes.
The girls must make use of Kevin’s shifting persona to escape as he goes back and forth between tormenting them, helping them and visiting his concerned psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher – who believes people like Kevin have the power to change their own physiology with each shift (for example, only one of his personalities has diabetes, and others like Hedwig, aren’t physically strong enough to over power the girls).
McAvoy’s performance is skillful and very enjoyable to watch; he’s clearly having the same macabre fun with it as Anthony Hopkins did with Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. His performance is frequently funny, more so than it is frightening. Anya Taylor-Joy however – star of last year’s ambient horror masterpiece The VVitch – is actually the more interesting character, as the lead captive, Casey. She has a predictable but affecting past that serves as the films only real source of horror.
Films have a peculiar relationship with mental illness, taking advantage of our general lack of knowledge of specific mental conditions like DID for dramatic gain. Split goes beyond the mother/son dichotomy found in the classic Psycho, crafting a film closer to science fiction than real life. I’m concerned that films like Split may be offensive or even dangerous, exploiting trauma and mental illness for scares. It’s a shame then that Split isn’t even scary. Maybe that’s the point. The film is so far removed from reality; it feels more like a superhero – or more aptly super-villain – origin story than a straightforward thriller. Perhaps Kevin’s condition should be considered in the same manner as that of Spiderman’s or Superman’s.
The film, unlike McAvoy’s performance, is mostly predictable. Casey’s past is doled out over a series of tedious flash backs when we already know from the first one, how things will play out. Kevin’s visits to his psychiatrist lead to many expositions scenes much like the ending of Psycho, and they’re rendered even more uninteresting because of the fictional viewpoint of the condition. The captive sequences aren’t substantial enough either; Casey and the other two girls are disappointingly split up early on leaving their relationships undeveloped, especially surrounding Casey’s past. And Shyamalan still imbues his characters and scenes with stilted unnaturalness that has defined train wrecks like The Happening and After Earth as some of the worst movies of recent memory. Taylor-Joy and McAvoy mostly avoid these pitfalls but the other actors aren’t so successful at lending believability to Shyamalan’s wooden scripting.
Split has been successful with audiences and many feel Shyamalan is building a low-budget comeback along with last year’s The Visit. These films are certainly more successful at showcasing Shyamalan’s talents but I find them too infrequently effective. Split is a hopeful stepping-stone towards something more significant but it stands as a barely passable Hitchcockian thriller.
Image via Universal