Halloween Special: “Split” Review

split_ver4It 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.

Split (2016)

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 

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18 Responses to Halloween Special: “Split” Review

  1. Steve says:

    Just saw this for the first time a few days ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It succeeds on many levels and is one of M.’s greatest films. I’m not one to get overly excited about superhero franchises, but after Unbreakable and Split, I’m ready for Glass!

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Definitely. This is one of Shyamalan’s best films. I was taken aback how good it was! Not sure if I am totally in love with the superhero sequels. I just enjoyed this film for what it was. But I am looking forward to Glass too, glad to know it is filming right now.

  2. raistlin0903 says:

    This really was a terrific movie and one that in my opinion put M. Night Shyamalan back on the map. I honestly have to say that I quite liked the twist at the end. Can’t wait to see the two movies come together in Glass. Really wondering how this is going to turn out. Great post 😀

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks! If we are talking about the same “twist”, I think it is a far cry to say it is a twist, since it does not have such a close connection with the plot. I was almost indifferent to the twist. SPOILER here for everyone who has not seen the film, but, I mean, Alien shares the “same universe” with Blade Runner, and Pixar films share the same universe. I mean, ok 🙂

  3. Mr. Bobinsky says:

    Very good insight. I haven’t seen it yet. I remember reading however some time ago that in the legal field multiple-personality disorder case hasn’t been scientifically confirmed yet and most cases were fraudulent…

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Oh, I think you are going to love it! And, yeah, some cases are fraudulent, but, strangely, the disorder is like now a “well-established fact”. It features in the MSD Manual, which sets the global standard in medical reference. Of course, there is nothing too scary about the disease, unlike what the film shows, and many people cope ok on a daily basis. It is just there is a need for the mind to take a different personality so that the main personality does not need to remember and live through all the horrible stuff that happened to that person.

  4. Having 23 different personalities is a might feat to be had ( I can hardly keep up with my own). And James McAvoy really does shine best through each characters. It’s odd at first but you soon become involved in ‘the light’ of them all.

    I too felt perhaps Casey’s traumatic experiences could have been a little more present but I suppose making such a complex script can blind such thoughts. I like that you mentioned Anya Taylor Joy as I have recentky watched The Witch and mentioned it in my recent post. (A wonderful movie I felt).

    I likedthe idea of this movie that borderlines between the surreal superhero aspect yet keeping you grounded enough not to produce an overkill which is far more fascinating in my opinion.

    This was a wonderful in depth review Diana.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks very much!
      I kept wondering why there was a need for the film to mention 24 personalities, could they have made 14, for example, since we only see some of them – not all 24?, or I am missing something? James McAvoy was great, no doubt about that.
      I totally get what you say about borderlining. I think that’s the skill of Shyamalan. Despite the fantastical topic, it felt real (enough) and not overblown. I noticed the same thing in “The Village”.
      And, I also liked Anya Taylor Joy in “The Witch”. She is very talented.

  5. Good to see that Shyamalan has returned to form. Maybe we can now forgive him for what he did to Avatar.

  6. Moody Moppet says:

    Woah! I’m dying to see Split. I love James Mcavoy and M. Night Shyamalan and the combination between the is great!

  7. Pingback: M. Night Shyamalan / posters

  8. I saw this a while back and agree with just about everything you say. Some reviewers panned the gratuitous misrepresentation of MPD. I have been a fan of McAvoy throughout his career and was happy to see he went for this unique role. He obviously had a lot of fun with it. I’m a sucker for this narrative–10 Cloverfield Lane–was better, but in both examples, the main stars shine brightly and the situation is claustrophobic and interesting. As for Shyamalan, it’s a step in the right direction. He dares to push plausibility in his stories, and I admire him for it. Frequently I am hooked, engaged, and glued–for a while. Then, something happens in his stories that makes me sigh–the dropped baton–and I wish he’d try again hoping he will succeed or maybe hire a writer and stick to directing. I can’t believe how great The 6th Sense and Signs still fresh to me today. I miss those.
    With Split, other than watching McAvoy, it’s a forgettable film.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Well, I think it is a bit unfair to talk about the misrepresentation of the illness. I mean, we are talking about a horror/thriller, not a documentary. If people want an accurate portrayal of the multiple personality disorder, they could go and watch a documentary. An entertainment requires something extreme, and “Split” deliveres it, and it is not that inaccurate.
      Yeah, “Split” is not a perfect movie, but no film which features multiple personality disorder is forgettable for me.
      However, I do agree with you – “something” always does happen in his films which brings the whole film down. I guess Shyamalan thinks it is now his prerogative “to drop bombs” in the middle of nowhere. Like his fans will slaughter him if he does not do it. He needs to take things easy, and if he decides to do it, do it with more thought.

  9. Chris says:

    There are sporadically thrilling moments concerning the girls, and does capture a sense of claustrophobia. McAvoy’s performance is noteworthy, though the film is overlong, and I often found my mind wandering due to boredom.
    The last 10-15 mins are surprising, but tonally completely different to what the story is about. Or maybe the ending does make sense on a certain level, could it be a commentary on not being able to get rid of him (from your mind), no matter how hard you try.

  10. Sharon says:

    I understood the bigger concept of the film, but pulling it all together I think it just fell short of how great it could have been.

  11. Pingback: “Thoroughbreds” Review | dbmoviesblog

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