“We are what we believe we are”.
M. Night Shyamalan fizzed into movie consciousness in 1999 with “The Sixth Sense” which – having rewatched it again recently – still has the power to unnerve and impress even after knowing the famous ‘twist’. Since that film and his next, “Unbreakable” in 2000, Shyamalan has ‘done a bit of an Orson Welles’ by never really living up to that early promise. Here with “Split” he returns to better form with a psychological thriller that is heavy on the psycho.
James McAvoy plays Kevin… and Dennis, and Patricia, and Hedwig, and Barry, and Orwell, and Jade, and… if the running time permitted… another 17 characters. But this is no “Kind Hearts and Coronets”: McAvoy plays all these varied personalities in the same body. For Kevin suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder, a rare condition where his different schisms not only affect his speech and attitude but also his whole physique. One personality for example is diabetic and needs insulin: all his others are fine.
Under the care of MPD specialist Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, “Carrie”), Kevin seems to be making good progress. But all is not as it seems. Dennis, one of the more evil of Kevin’s personalities, has kidnapped three teens – Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – and is holding them captive in his home.
While Claire and Marcia are good friends, Casey is the wild-card in the pack: a moody and aloof teen that doesn’t fit in with the crowd. We see the abduction unfold largely through her intelligent and analytical eyes, with her experiences causing flashbacks to hunting trips in the woods as a five-year-old child with her father and uncle.
This is McAvoy’s film, with his different personalities being very well observed and the scenes where he switches from one to the other being particularly impressive as piece of acting. Of the youngsters, Anya Taylor-Joy is the most impressive, with the denouement of her particular sub-plot being my favourite part of the film.
Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, is treading a well worn cinematic path here (since often the MPD element is the surprise twist, to list any films here inevitably risks major spoilers – – but there is a decent list here). But this is a film that seems to have generated a lot of interest, particularly with a younger audience (I have seldom been quizzed more with the “Ooh, have you seen this yet” question). As a result this may be a modest sleeper hit.
Where I think the movie missteps is in its casting of the three cute and scantily dressed teens as the abductees. From the plot of the film that emerges this appears to be unnecessary and exploitative, especially since they are made to progressively dis-robe as the film progresses. The film would actually have been made more interesting if a family unit, or at least a mixed variety of individuals, had been taken.
Unfortunately Shyamalan also over-gilds the lily for the finale by going from medical improbability into outright science fiction: and dilutes what was up to that point a stylish thriller. As a result it’s a decent popcorn film, and worth seeing for McAvoy’s clever performance, but its not going to go down in my book as a classic.
Watch out by the way for a nice final cameo scene: a clever reference to past glories.
Fad Rating: FFF.