After a string of terrible studio fails, I think it’s safe to say that M. Night Shyamalan is back in action. But he’s not the same man who made the proto-Spielbergian sci-fi/horror of The Sixth Sense or Signs. His various critical and commercial failures seem to have inspired him to go back to basics, now making films that seem more stripped down than any of his movies that came before.
The Visit was a ghoulishly fun found footage riff on the tale of red riding hood, filmed for a low budget at a single location. Split is another lower budget, largely single location genre piece. It’s a risky, exceptionally brave picture, showcasing a director who appears committed once more to turning heads with twisted fairy tales.
James McAvoy stars as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, who due to a severely traumatic childhood, is capable of transforming into various personalities. Each has a different biological, psychological, and social makeup (one is diabetic, some are women, one is a nine year old boy, etc). In this case, Kevin has 23 different personalities. However, before we even find this out, there’s the cold open of him kidnapping three teenage girls after a birthday party in a mall parking lot. Waking up after they’ve been drugged, the girls find themselves locked in a dungeon-like room with no windows and a locked door (though the location remains a secret throughout much of the film, many Philadelphians will be able to guess where it is from the brief exterior shots. I did!). It doesn’t take long for them to realize that Kevin’s various alters are waging a war for control within his body; and their safety hangs in the balance.
One of the girls, invited to the party out of pity, is Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor Joy), who has a traumatic past of her own. Because of her usual black sheep status, Casey is able to empathize with some of Kevin’s alters in a way that her peers are not. At first this seems to give way to an escape plan, but as she gets to know the alters more and more, she borders on stockholm syndrome. Parallelling the story of the girls is the story of Kevin’s psychotherapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a leading expert in the field of DID. Fully committed to her patients and to all of Kevin’s alters, she gets alerted that something may be off with him when she starts receiving emergency e-mails in the middle of the night to schedule sessions the next day.
Many who come seeking an exciting thriller may be scratching their heads at the extended therapy sessions between Fletcher and Kevin. They serve as exposition dumps, but are also shot as a duel of sorts, as Fletcher does her best to unlock the true reason behind Kevin’s sudden cry for help. For a while the film takes on an almost Cronenebergian feel, feeling like a Dead Ringers or even The Fly. Shyamalan clearly did his research- while the film inevitably gives way to a kind of body horror fantasy, much of it feels grounded in real case studies and scientific research (Note: as a creative arts therapist myself I have worked with clients who have DID, and much of the film’s treatment of the disorder felt right to me).
The case study feeling of the first half pulls us deep into Kevin’s world, to the extent that I was half expecting it to be a violence free story of how one man split apart is able to integrate once again. It does so by keeping Kevin’s backstory to an absolute minimum, instead choosing to explore flashbacks of Casey’s abusive childhood. If we get to see what Casey has been through (and see that she is at least an integrated, functioning human), our minds are left to do the work of imagining how terrible Kevin’s past must have been.
The film uses our empathy against us in a shocking final third, almost getting us to feel what it’s like to be “split” apart. It becomes a battle of wills between two very broken people- but two people who have responded to their inherent brokenness in very different ways. It reminded me of Ken Russell’s masterpiece Altered States, for reasons that will become apparent to anyone who has seen it.
While his films have been largely twist-free since The Village, Shyamalan couldn’t help returning to the role of twistmaster, in a final reveal that had me yelling in the theater. I am happy to report that it’s not a twist that suddenly changes everything you saw (i.e. he was dead the whole time, they’re really living in the present, etc.) but rather further contextualizes the film as a story of good vs. evil. In an immensely satisfying and surprising way, I must say.
James McAvoy is excellent as Kevin and his alters- he turns what could have easily been a for-laughs, exploitative role into something real and human. I was expecting the packed house at the Ritz to devolve into transphobic laughter when he eventually shows up in a dress (as the alter Miss Patricia), but barely a peep was uttered- I think in large part thanks to how committed McAvoy is to the role. Joaquin Phoenix was apparently originally cast for the role- which I would have loved to have seen. I think in the end though, McAvoy’s theatrically trained dramatic chops are what make the difference.
I am left curious to see what Shyamalan’s next step will be- and anyone who sees where he takes this story will be left wondering the same thing. I am happy to say though, that he’s back. We need more of these medium level, original thrillers. Ones that are exciting, fun, cerebral, brain tingling, and also kind of ridiculous and at times infuriating. Ones that you get to debate over long after the credits roll. I promise you’ll be doing plenty of that over Split.
Split opens in Philly theaters today.