Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
The title of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest horror-thriller film is a dead giveaway, pun intended. There is little suspense around the what; Split is more about the how. That’s why when the three female abductees of Kevin (James McAvoy) peer through the peephole to see him having a conversation with who seems like a woman, it’s almost instantaneously revealed that it’s Kevin himself dressed as Patricia, one of 23 personalities inside him.
Another film would have maintained made a meal out of this reveal, but Split has other business to attend to. It wants to detail how these 23 personalities reside inside Kevin, what the heirarchy is, how they take control of him… “So, it’s like they are all sitting in chairs waiting for their turn to get the light,” as he tells his psychiatrist. Why has he abducted these women? Considering he has 23 personalities within him, is Kevin even aware that the abduction has taken place?
Split is the resume actors wish they had when they approached studios for work. The scene towards the end that has McAvoy turning from one personality to another is the sort of popcorn entertainment that makes cinema worthwhile. Split, however, wants to be a lot more than just a crowd-pleaser. It wants to posit theories on Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
It suggests that if an affected individual is able to channel the various personalities in him at will, and consequently, their respective bodily quirks and respective talents, perhaps DID then is a superpower. It’s suggested that there maybe a personality inside Kevin who can do things no human cannot. That’s the chief conceit of Split, of Shyamalan, and derision of it, on account of its impossibility, hinders your enjoyment of the film.
I enjoyed the darkness of Kevin’s therapy sessions that burst with the looming possibility of danger. It’s also entertaining that the narrative constantly shifts between the past trauma of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the abductees, and the ongoing trauma of the abductor. The claustrophobia of the space in which Kevin (or should I say, Dennis and Patricia, the evil personalities inside him) confines the girls is a character unto itself.
There’s an organically developed laugh-out-loud moment when Casey finally convinces Hedwig, a 9-year-old personality of Kevin’s, into taking her to his room, only so she can finally be in the presence of a window. Upon going there, she realises dully that the window is simply a drawing Hedwig has affixed on the wall. The audience laughed sadistically.
While on sadism, the chief issue of Split is that despite the first two acts seemingly building up to something profound, something therapeutic, it almost gets reduced into a sexploitative work. One of the personalities’ OCD for cleanliness is used to keep two of the abductees skimpily clad throughout the film.
It’d not be unreasonable to accuse Split of perhaps sexualising the torture of the girls. The other issue is one that mental health institutions have already taken offence to: the portrayal of a recognised disease as being inherently dangerous and violent.
While you have to concede that the conceit is necessary for the story, shouldn’t the end have been a cathartic resolution? In its present form, it almost plays out as romanticisation of evil—especially when you consider that Casey doesn’t really seem to have mustered enough courage to take on her uncle at the end.
That’s why you walk out feeling Split should have been a lot more than the sum of its parts. That’s not an insult to the film; it’s a compliment.