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[Review] – ‘Split’

 
 
Overview
 

Release Date: 20 January 2017 [USA]
 
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
 
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
 
Cast: James McAvoy - Anya Taylor-Joy - Haley Lu Richardson
 
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Posted January 23, 2017 by

 
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Review:

M. Night Shyamalan’s latest offering taps into Hollywood’s obsession with the controversial subject of Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID), where multiple ‘alters’ or personas inhabit one body, creating a claustrophobic nightmare which combines the psychological horror of Psycho with the supernatural chills of Jekyll and Hyde. There’s an element of humour too, largely due to a stunning performance from James McAvoy, and the closing moments of the film (which have amazingly remained a well-kept secret) totally reframe everything that has gone before, a trope favoured by Shyamalan and used by another DID-themed classic, Fincher’s Fight Club, and force the audience to reconsider everything they’ve just seen, even down to the genre of it.

While this worked well in the The Sixth Sense, and less so in The Village, here the final ‘twist’ relies heavily on the audience knowing specific elements of Shyamalan’s previous work, so will just leave many confused, and others with a severe case of tonal whiplash.

Split starts off as a seemingly standard kidnap thriller. Two popular girls, Claire and Marcia, and their loner classmate, Casey (a fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy, last seen in the brilliant The Witch), are snatched on their way home from a party when Claire’s father’s car is hijacked by James McAvoy’s intense neat freak, Dennis. They are drugged and wake up in windowless room where Dennis tried to force Marcia to dance naked for him. Casey’s survivor credentials are signposted early on in proceedings when she urges Marcia to ‘pee on herself’, thus repelling the OCD afflicted sex pest. We come to understand what marks Casey out as different through a series of flashbacks to her young life, when she was taught to hunt by her father and uncle on a wilderness camping trip.

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It soon becomes apparent that the girls’ predicament isn’t as straightforward as it first appears when ‘Dennis’ starts presenting as a woman named Patricia, and a perpetually nine-year-old boy called Hedwig. Indeed, these are just three of the twenty three alters living in Kevin, a man who was abused at a young age and whose psyche has fragmented as a coping mechanism. The action moves between the girls’ place of imprisonment and the office of therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), the DID expert treating Kevin, who realises that something is very wrong when she receives e-mails from an unknown alter asking for emergency sessions. Are some of Kevin’s personalities being repressed by others for a sinister purpose? Fletcher’s belief that alters can display disparate physicalities, and that DID can unlock the full potential of the human mind forms the supernatural element of the story. The three girls are to be sacrificed as part of a ritual to bring out a twenty-fourth identity – ominously referred to as The Beast – a kind of Ubermensch, impervious to the usual gamut of human weaknesses.

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As you might expect, with several identities to play with, James McAvoy turns in an astounding performance (several performances, in fact), which makes Split worth watching as a character study if nothing else. He flits effortlessly between steely, prim Patricia, flamboyant, fashion obsessed Barry, twitchy, control junkie Dennis, and Kanye-obsessed Hedwig, inhabiting each one fully, and twisting that lovely, innocent face into a startling range of expressions. His shaved head and throbbing veins, juxtaposed with disarming smiles, touches of camp humour, and a childish lisp, give a dizzying sense of the chaotic, fractured nature of Kevin’s mind. Anya Taylor-Joy is also fantastic as Casey, both determined and vulnerable. The camera is close on her face for much of the time, and she manages to convey a lot of meaning and back-story without actually saying much at all.

Conversely, the therapy sessions between Dr. Fletcher and Kevin are pure exposition, and the dialogue so clunky and contrived it almost sounds like a first draft. A Skype seminar on Dr. Fletcher’s DID research, intended to highlight how sceptical Fletcher’s peers are about her theories while giving her ample time to foreshadow the coming of The Beast, is similarly delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. It’s a shame, because the premise is an intriguing one, based on compelling real life cases, and McAvoy is easily accomplished enough to show us Kevin’s inner turmoil and hint at the horrors which have resulted in his condition without us having to be told specifics about his past. The flashbacks to Casey’s childhood trauma are arguably as lazy a narrative device, but these scenes are more compelling, and certainly less jarring. This is due largely to some genius casting, with Izzie Coffey’s young Casey every bit as watchable as her grown-up counterpart.

It’s interesting and somewhat refreshing to see a female lead in peril, who recognises that an emotional connection with adversary and clear thinking are her best chances of survival. Indeed, Casey’s fellow teens, who would try to overpower their much stronger captor, or escape through more conventional methods, are doomed to fail from the off, ‘princess’ archetypes, relegated to spend most of the film locked in store cupboards. It’s Casey’s ability to relate to Kevin that enables her to survive, her brokenness that makes her more ‘evolved’. While Casey is a victim, she is also a strategist, and while Kevin has monstrousness inside him, he’s not a monster.

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The blurred lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ may frustrate those looking for a clear-cut champion to root for, but there’s a more pressing problem at hand. Casey is a sympathetic enough creation, but never devastates, and while Shyamalan’s script allows McAvoy to show his considerable acting chops, it doesn’t really leave him much room to elicit our heartbreak. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy here, and although the supernatural bent may not be enough to completely allay the fears of those sick of mental health conditions being aligned with psycho-killers for the sake of sensationalism, it’s clear there’s a genuine fascination and belief underpinning Shyamalan’s work in this case.

Split is an intense, entertaining thriller that showcases the virtuosity of its leads, and while it suffers from a sense of self-indulgence and some bad dialogue in places, it marks a return to form for its director.

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Katie Young
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2 Comments


  1.  

    I really like your review. You did a great job. I agree that some of the dialogue wasn’t the best, but I really enjoyed the movie. I thought that McAvoy did an amazing job. I loved the ending, in reference to another of his previous films, I won’t mention anything so I don’t give it away.




  2.  
    Graham

    I don’t know whether I built this movie up too much in my mind before seeing it, but I was really disappointed.
    There were no edge of the seat moments, no jump scares to speak of. It was just…there.
    I never felt any tension between the characters and didn’t believe the girls would have kept their composure so much to be able to outsmart him.





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