Film Review: Split

M. Night Shyamalan’s thrilling and satisfying return to form showcases an entertaining, multi-faceted role for James McAvoy.
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The best thrillers are the ones that keep you on the edge of your seat, trying to guess where things might be going for the entire film. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan established himself as a modern master of this genre with films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but veering into other realms left his fans somewhat bewildered and often disappointed. Split is very much a return to form, and it may be the closest Shyamalan gets to creating his own take on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

We meet outcast teenager Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) as she’s attending a party where she doesn’t have many friends. Seeing she’s alone, Casey is offered a ride from Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), one of her classmates, who is so busy chatting with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) that they don’t notice it’s not Claire’s father driving the car. The stranger at the wheel sprays them with something that knocks them out, and they wake up in a locked room in a strange place.

As scared as the girls are already, things get weirder when they meet their kidnapper (James McAvoy), who first turns up as the cleanliness-obsessed “Dennis,” then greets them in a dress as “Patricia.” By the time they meet “nine-year-old Hedwig” they realize that something is not right with their captor. In fact, Kevin (his given name) suffers from DID or dissociative identity disorder, and as we learn through sessions with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), he’s developed 23 distinct personalities to deal with the trauma of having an abusive mother as a child.

Warned by Kevin’s personas of a great danger, referred to as “The Beast,” the girls do everything they can to escape before being separated. Only Casey is able to empathize with her captor, bonding with his younger incarnation.

The film’s setup is intercut with flashbacks to Casey’s childhood, showing seemingly more pleasant times as a young girl, hunting with her father and uncle. As expected, this concurrent story is also leading to dark places.

Split is very much a showcase for the talents of Scottish actor McAvoy, who not only changes outfits for each of Kevin’s persona, but also the way he speaks, his accent and even his mannerisms. There’s something infinitely amusing about watching a grown man act like a nine-year-old or a dignified older woman.

While any comparisons to Psycho should generally be taken as a compliment, it may be hard to avoid those comparisons, with Kevin’s multiple personalities taking the place of how Norman Bates dealt with his own mommy issues.

As much as the weight of the film falls upon McAvoy, he’s helped greatly by the casting of veteran stage actress Buckley as his psychiatrist—their sessions together delivering much of the film’s exposition and Kevin’s backstory. Taylor-Joy also brings a lot to the mix, often with just the way she reacts to McAvoy’s changing personas. The relationship between their characters and how it evolves over the course of the film helps to acclimate the viewer to what is undoubtedly an odd situation.

Another impressive aspect of Split is the way the central underground location is used to give little hints of what’s to come. We don’t just spend the entire film in the one room where the girls are first placed. After they’re split up, we get to see other parts of Kevin’s “complex”—for lack of a better word—although we don’t really know where it’s located until an end reveal.

As with many of Shyamalan’s previous films, the less you know about the premise and how it plays out is paramount to your shock at the film’s outcome, not so much a twist as a reveal that the filmmaker plans to continue in this realm that’s worked so well for him in the past.

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