After a few bad films several years back, the last few have been a Shyamalanaissance of sorts with Split being the best of those. The main draw was James McAvoy playing a character with multiple personalities. While McAvoy’s performance was the best part of the film, the film could have gone further because the trailers may or may not have implied that there would be more personalities than were shown here. (original review)
Synopsis: 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 has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, 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, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him. (Official Synopsis
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley.
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: 14A (Canada)/PG-13 (United States)
Running Time: 117mins
There have been countless films about kidnapped girls but what sets this one apart is the fact that their so called kidnapper named Kevin (McAvoy) has dissociative identity disorder, or multiple identities. While mental illness is a sensitive subject, the film does not sensationalize the issue and those afflicted by it and also taking a supportive stance. Kevin’s multiple identities, at least early on, added to his unpredictability which added to the film’s overall suspense. Of course we knew what was going on and maybe the other characters should have known sooner but it was still exciting to watch.
While going home from a party, three girls named Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped and held captive by Kevin for reasons that were never clear. Casey and Claire and Marcia approached their captivity in different ways, Claire and Marcia wanted so desperately to escape that they may not have been thinking the most rationally but Casey was more careful about it. She was the first to notice what was going on with Kevin and thought to play his personalities against each other.
Casey was different from other girls, only being with the other two because they felt bad for her. She was obviously going to be a main character because of the film setting her up by giving her a backstory that was meant to make her more endearing and contrasting her with the other, more fortunate girls. This worked for the most part and made her more interesting as it set the other girls aside rather quickly, rendering them forgettable.
The other part of the film was the subplot involving Kevin and his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Buckley). She was close with Kevin and all her other patients who were family to her. She studied people with DID, thinking that they were not lesser human beings but superior ones capable of supernatural abilities. Because she and Kevin were close, she knew the subtle differences between his identities and could see that something was wrong. She helped us to understand what was happening within Kevin and adding context to his behavior. Their scenes were the most compelling and helped to humanize him.
The unfortunate part was that the trailers gave too much away. It mentioned 23 personalities but the film only offered 9. It also threatened a dormant 24th personality waiting to emerge. The reveal of this new personality was underwhelming because of the lack of development of Kevin. He did not get that much of a backstory as the only background we got was through his interactions with Dr. Fletcher. Kevin was creepy but wasn’t particularly scary as the girls only got nothing more than a revolving door of personalities which never seemed to go anywhere as his ultimate intentions weren’t clear.
The acting here was great, especially from McAvoy. It would definitely not have worked as well if it were anyone else. He inhabits all of the personalities, making them feel different while giving each of them their own characteristics and quirks. Some were over the top but never went too far. Taylor-Joy was a worthy adversary, using her wits to survive. While the other girls were quick to demonize him, she wanted to understand him and she used this knowledge to get away. Buckley was also likable as Dr. Fletcher, breaking up the darker moments.
It wouldn’t be a M. Night Shyamalan film without a twist and that did not change here but it was more subtle here, referencing one of his earlier films.
Overall, this was an entertaining thriller with an interesting premise, needing further development, and is elevated by a great performance from James McAvoy.