Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson, Izzie Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus. (2017, PG-13, 117 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 20, 2017
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan regains some of the footing lost with his disappointing film output of recent years (i.e., The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening). With Split, his second pairing with horror revitalizers Blumhouse Productions, Shyamalan seems to have recovered some of his former mojo. Using minimal locations and few characters, Split relies on James McAvoy’s central performance and Michael Gioulakis’ expressive cinematography to tell its story about a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), the three high school girls he abducts, and the therapist who tries to help him.
Kevin (McAvoy) is the DID patient who we’re told has 23 different identities. Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley) is saddled with most of the film’s expositional background, which we learn from her sessions with Kevin (who visits her in the guise of one of his personalities named Barry) and from a Skype speech she delivers to her colleagues in which she explains her belief that an affected individual’s different personalities can assume different physiological attributes. Although we only get to witness half a dozen or so of Kevin’s various identities (called alters), a 24th is emergent and is the reason he kidnaps Claire (Richardson), Marcia (Sula), and Casey (Taylor-Joy, who garnered a lot of praise for her breakthrough role in The Witch). The girls wake up Saw-style in a locked, windowless basement, and, bit by bit, make the acquaintance of the alters: Dennis, a menacing, OCD clean freak; Miss Patricia, a controlling woman in heels; Hedwig, a lisping adolescent; and others. DID, we learn from the doctor, is often a consequence of childhood abuse, and that’s something Casey (we learn from her flashbacks) knows something about. She’s really the only abductee with whom the story really concerns itself. The other two girls are separated and plunked in separate rooms, and their unproductive attempts to escape become the gist of their individual storylines.
Give James McAvoy an award (or 24) for his performance in Split. Playing his various alters, the Scottish actor adopts so many different behaviors and speech patterns that it’s impossible not to marvel at his versatility. In this acting showcase, McAvoy even deftly portrays one alter who is posing as another. Shyamalan also includes one of his signature surprise endings, although this one is something more like an in-joke than a shocker. The film’s third act is somewhat wanting in tension and high-stake emotions as the characters go through their paces without adding much excitement or plot advancement. Still, as far as cinema’s long love affair with DID dramas goes, Split ain’t a half-bad contribution.