It is that time of the year again: time for trick-or-treating, pumpkin-carving, witches-watching and party-going! To celebrate the tradition which may date back to some ancient rituals of Celts, here is my review of the film “Split” from one of the front-men of the modern horror/thriller genre – M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Unbreakable” (2000), “The Village” (2004)). Also, to get you into the festive mood, you can check out my other reviews of horror films, all of them are listed here.
This film is M. Night Shyamalan’s latest creation, which exceeded everyone’s expectations. Here, a man Kevin (James McAvoy) abducts three girls and holds them hostage in a building. Kevin suffers from a multiple-personality disorder, one of the most serious and rarest of all psychiatric illnesses. He has twenty-three different personalities, who compete for attention in his head, and the captive girls must race against time to free themselves before the emergence of the most frightening and uncontrollable twenty-fourth personality called simply “The Beast”. “Split” is very well-made, with the outstanding acting, especially by McAvoy, and a fascinating plot and topic. What about Shyamalan’s penchant for unbelievable twists, one may ask? Well, there are simply no twists, in a traditional sense of this word, or none to concern oneself when watching the film.
Horror films are notoriously underrated. In recent years, James Wan (“Saw” (2004)) with his “The Conjuring” and “Insidious” sequels managed to successfully make traditional horror popular again, including in the eyes of critics. When it comes to M. Night Shyamalan, after his ground-breaking “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”, he was berated vehemently, especially for his “Lady in the Water” (2006) and the lesser known “The Happening” (2008). Shyamalan seemed to have come back to his old form in “The Visit” (2015), a very enjoyable horror with a nice twist. However, it is now clear that, in “Split”, M. Night Shyamalan has finally reached the level of his “The Sixth Sense”, not regarding the twist, but regarding the plot and the execution.
“Split” is great as a film because it manages to successfully balance the frightening and entertaining plot with the glimpse into the theory behind the most misunderstood and fascinating of all psychiatric disorders – multiple personality disorder. The execution of this film is precise and admirable. It is clear that M. Night Shyamalan has a vision here, making his audience think deeply about the implications of the maddening illness; frightening his audience; and providing enough suspense to make the audience wonder and long for more thrills. When Kevin abducts the three girls it is done with the precision of a snooker player at the world championship. At this stage, the girls do not yet comprehend their predicament or the personality of their attacker. Soon, however, the confusion sets in as Dennis, their abductor, is replaced by the woman Patricia, and the girls try different tricks to get themselves out of their captivity. From that point on, the movie is watched on one breath, and when the action and suspense become too much, we see the world through the eyes of young Casey, one of the abductees, who links her experience as a captive with her own traumatic childhood. It is also Casey, played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch” (2015)), who begins to make first meaningful contact with their captor, who sometimes emerges as a very young boy Hedwig.
Multiple-personality disorder has been the topic of many horror films and thrillers, some of which should not be even named here because the illness is the twist of these films, but “Primal Fear” (1996) and “Shelter” (2010) concern themselves precisely with that. “Split” goes somewhat further, though. Through the talk of Kevin’s prime psychiatrist in the movie, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played beautifully by Betty Buckley, the audience finds out more interesting, and astonishingly true, things about the disease. A person suffering from the disorder could have multiple personalities, both male and female, both young and old. Apart from different opinions, beliefs and lifestyles, these personalities could have different body temperatures, different hand-writings, and, yes, different medical conditions (it has been documented). Unbelievable, but true, and that is what the power of a belief or a thought could produce, as the film also so suggests. For example, in one “real” case of Shirley Ardell Mason, better known as Sybil, a girl had sixteen separate different personalities, some of them little girls, but, although the veracity of her account is now disputed, some of her personalities allegedly did exhibit different physiological qualities, and “the switching off and on” of allergy in a multiple personality person is well-documented. As the film also implies, the onset of such a dissociation from one’s prime personality also happens when there was some truly horrific, despicable event happened in one’s life in the past. Both Sybil, and another real woman called Helen, who had seven different personalities, underwent a very severe physical, psychological and sexual abuse before being diagnosed with the illness. “Split” is also concerned with traumatic memories and their effect on a person’s future development, and also demonstrates how some personalities in one’s head may communicate with one another, and hold relationships.
The film would not have been so good, but for the amazing performance by James McAvoy (“Atonement” (2007), “Filth” (2013)). In a perfect world, he would be up there, being nominated for an Academy Award for this performance. It is unbelievable how good he is in switching between different people, sometimes, in one shot. He plays Dennis, a psychopathic abductor with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, with the mechanical precision, but then he also coolly portrays the worried and religious Patricia, and makes out of Barry a charming and easy-going man, quite unlike anyone the audience has seen so far. Finally, McAvoy’s performance as a small boy Hedwig deserves a special mention. He really becomes the immature, naïve and scared boy, who is dominated by both Dennis and Patricia.
On a negative side and aside from the so-called “twist” of the film, the ending is too open-ended, and the film is not very successful in satisfactorily merging the plot of the film, and the character Kevin with the traumatic experiences of Casey. Throughout the film, Casey experiences flashbacks of her past countryside trip with her dad and her uncle, hunting wild animals. But, behind the façade of normality, Casey’s uncle uses the opportunities he has alone with his niece to traumatise her. M. Night Shyamalan showcases the power of negative memories, and how people cope differently with their PTSD. In “Split”, there is a parallel drawn between the victim and the criminal, and this, indeed, what sometimes happens in a real life. However, the fault of the film is that it never actually satisfactorily ties Casey’s past experiences to her present traumatic events.
“Split” is a brilliantly executed horror film. McAvoy shines as a man driven mad by his numerous personalities, while other cast are sympathetic and intriguing. The film has enough scares, thrills and melancholic contemplation to satisfy every horror fan. And, when that movie also raises some thought-provoking questions on the power of negative memories and on deeper implications of multiple-personality disorder, it becomes a must-see film. The film does get a bit lost at the very end, and the so-called unexpected “twist” at the end is more confusing and unrelated, than effective. However, the overall superior quality of this film is evident. 8/10