I am an M. Night Shyamalan fan. There, I said it.
Director and Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy
Released: January 2017
So this movie starts out with three teenage girls getting kidnapped by a man named Kevin who has severe dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 personalities living in his head, ranging from a hyperactive 9-year-old boy to an outgoing fashion designer to a motherly British woman. A few of his identities have taken over his mind and are trying to bring out a 24th, which they call “the Beast,” because they believe he’ll have superhuman powers and be able to protect all the people living inside Kevin’s head. The three girls have a part to play in this Beast’s emergence, and, although it’s only vaguely hinted at in the beginning, it doesn’t seem to involve them getting out alive. But one of the girls, named Casey, stays surprisingly level-headed and calm about the whole situation, plotting an escape and figuring out ways to stay one step ahead of her captor throughout the movie.
When I say I’m a Shyamalan fan, I should clarify that, until I watched this movie, I had only seen his first four films: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village. And I loved all of them. (Yes, even The Village. Fight me.) I thought they all employed cool cinematography, good acting and a clever use of symbolism to tell powerful, original stories. They had flaws (especially The Village) but I’d still pay money to see any of them again. I have not seen any of Shyamalan’s more reviled films, such as The Happening, Lady in the Water, or The Last Airbender. Based on what I’ve heard, they deserve their reputation for awfulness. But since I haven’t seen them myself, they haven’t sullied my opinion of M. Night as much as they have for most people.
Still, I didn’t go into this movie thinking it would be the next Sixth Sense. I was curious about it because I was interested to see what a good actor like James McAvoy could do with a challenging character like Kevin/Hedwig/Dennis/Patricia/Barry etc., and because it was the first M. Night movie in over a decade to get more than 70% good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But I wasn’t expecting to be blown away.
And in some ways, Split lived up to my expectations. As I expected, James McAvoy is incredible in his role. He shifts effortlessly between personalities, giving each of them its own unique mannerisms and body language, and making each one totally believable as a separate person, even though they all look the same. He is incredibly creepy at almost all times, yet it’s still possible to sympathise with him during a lot of scenes, and he’s always fun to watch. I seriously think McAvoy deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. He won’t get one, because it’s a Shyamalan film, but at least it shows he’s a good enough actor to hopefully get that kind of recognition in the future.
The non-Kevin characters are…a little iffy. Fortunately, there aren’t many of them. There’s Kevin’s psychiatrist, who specialises in DID. She has a nice relationship with one or two of his personalities, and gives a lot of helpful exposition about her theories on the disorder, but she’s not super memorable. The two kidnapped girls who aren’t Casey are basically non-entities. We barely learn anything about them by the end of the movie, their actresses give mediocre performances at best, and they consistently make bad decisions. They’re there to fulfill a plot function, and nothing more. And it’s a shame that I, as an audience member, think of them that way, because that’s clearly how most of Kevin’s personalities view them as well. I don’t like agreeing with villains, man!
Casey herself is better. She has a personality. She’s smart, resourceful to the point of being manipulative at times, and she has courage. Of course, that doesn’t always stop her from doing dumb horror-movie things like staring at the horrible thing for too long before running away, but give her props for at least trying to out-think the villain. She also has an interesting connection to said villain that is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, very effectively in my opinion. Anya Taylor-Joy does a decent job in the role, but it’s hard for her to look great next to McAvoy.
This movie definitely has its problems. There are some extremely clunky lines of dialogue that sound like nothing a human being would ever say (the psychiatrist being the most frequent offender). The story also drags just a bit in the beginning, with some scenes that seem a little repetitive. And although we hear over and over that Kevin has 24 personalities, we only ever get to see about nine of them. Granted, that’s still impressive for one actor, but it would have been kind of nice to see more.
Then there are the other questionable aspects. Like most Shyamalan movies, I think this one suffered from some bad marketing. The trailers make it look like a horror film. It’s not. (Although it does use some horror tropes.) The premise makes it sound like a psychological thriller. It’s not. (Although it does feel like one at times.) It actually belongs to a different genre altogether, which I’ll get to at the end of the review.
I think it’s important to go into this movie knowing that it’s not meant to be a realistic depiction of what it’s like to have DID. I don’t know much about the disorder myself, and from what I hear there are some varying opinions on it, but I’m fairly sure there’s not a single real psychiatrist who would say that people who have it can “change their body chemistry” to the extent that one personality has diabetes while the others don’t. And I don’t think Shyamalan thought that either, since he seems to have done at least a little bit of research on DID. I mean, at least he got the name right. Most of the times I’ve seen it pop up on TV or in movies, it’s called “multiple personality disorder” and played for laughs. But this movie takes some basic facts about a real, though rare, disorder, and exaggerates and twists them to fit a more fantastical narrative. Some people won’t much like that. Personally, I didn’t mind it, because I thought it worked with the kind of story Shyamalan was trying to tell.
It’s also important to go into the movie knowing that it features heavily implied child abuse of various kinds. The gory details are never shown, but what is shown will probably be enough to upset many viewers, especially anyone who’s gone through something similar in real life. Then there are the creepy overtones of a strong but mentally unstable man keeping three teenage girls locked in a basement (and yes, one of his personalities is very much a pervert). So, fair warning: just because it’s PG-13, and not a horror movie, that doesn’t mean it can’t be disturbing.
Overall, though, I’d say the movie’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses. It does a great job of building up an atmosphere of suspense, up until the last half hour or so, when all that tension explodes into a white-knuckle climax. Iffy minor characters aside, the interactions between our heroine and villain are always fascinating, increasingly so as more about their pasts is revealed. There are lots of funny moments scattered about to relieve the tension, mostly courtesy of Kevin’s 9-year-old persona. Shyamalan may not be the greatest at writing dialogue, but his visual storytelling is still pretty sharp, in my opinion. A lot of this story is told through images, body language, and symbols, even though the psychiatrist does spout exposition on occasion. Again, McAvoy has to take some of the credit, since he manages to convey a lot more than the script requires, but I think we can blame the direction for some of it as well.
Okay, now it’s time to talk about why I think this really is quite a good movie. As you’d expect from a Shyamalan film, it has a twist at the end: a revelation that completely changes everything about the movie. And it works better than any Shyamalan twist since The Sixth Sense. To me, it was this twist that put the movie over the line between “okay” and “really good.” But there are two problems with it. One is that not everyone who sees the movie will understand it. I think it’s possible to enjoy Split if you don’t fully understand the ending, but it might be harder, since the twist actually goes a long way towards fixing some of those questionable elements I mentioned earlier. And you wouldn’t understand why it made me yell at the screen. The other problem is that I can’t say anything about the twist without spoiling it, and since it was my favourite thing about the movie, that makes this review kind of difficult for me.
What I will say about the ending is that I think it works. It’s foreshadowed throughout the movie in subtle ways, it makes sense, and yet I don’t think anyone could have predicted it if they didn’t know about it beforehand. And it opens up a huge number of great possibilities for the sequel it’s definitely getting. That’s all I can say without spoiling things. If you’ve seen the movie (or don’t plan to), and want to know exactly why I loved the ending, you can scroll to the bottom of the review and find out.
Split, despite its flaws, is a creative movie that takes a surprising number of risks. It doesn’t follow the conventions of its genre, and it demands some thought from its audience. Not everyone will enjoy it, but fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work should definitely consider checking it out.
YAY UNBREAKABLE SEQUEL!!!!!! That was my second favourite (or possibly favourite–I go back and forth between it and The Sixth Sense) Shyamalan movie ever, and I am so stoked to see more stories taking place in its universe. Also, with Marvel dominating the big screen these days, there’s never been a better time to introduce a totally unique, understated, philosophical style of superhero movie. Split focuses on the villain more than Unbreakable did (although Elijah Price was by far the most interesting character even in that movie), giving him an origin story rather than introducing a new hero. Although by the end, it looks like Casey could have some superheroic tendencies as well. I hope so, at least, because I felt her character arc was a bit unfinished, and I’d like to see more of it in the sequel.
Since I somehow managed to avoid Internet spoilers before watching it, I didn’t have the slightest inkling that this movie would be a sequel until the last few minutes, but it works perfectly. Like Unbreakable, it’s very preoccupied with the characters’ search for “purpose” in their lives, and reasons for why those lives are so epically screwed up. Kevin, or “the Horde,” as he’s called by the end, comes up with a rather…unique solution, believing that it’s the pain he’s endured that gives his life meaning, and that people who haven’t suffered like he has are less valuable. Like Elijah’s ideas of purpose, it’s an insane idea that still sounds almost plausible enough to be true…especially considering how the hero mirrors the villain in both cases. I look forward to the sequel, which will no doubt find new and fascinating territory to explore with these characters and this universe…if Shyamalan doesn’t screw it up, of course. Fingers crossed!