Propelled by can’t-look-away performances by James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy and meticulous writing and direction by M. Night Shyamalan, “Split” (which hit theaters in January and is now on HBO) was one of the year’s first great films. It’s buzzworthy for its closing surprise (more on that after the spoiler tag below), but it’s worth seeing in its own right for its sci-fi-tinged examination of split personalities.
McAvoy’s character is hard to identify by name because he comprises 23 distinct personalities in one body, but since his body started as the home of Kevin, I’ll use that name. Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls – Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (“The Edge of Seventeen’s” Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) – and holds them in a basement room.
Kevin – who is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder – pops in now and then in different personalities, from ringleaders Dennis and Patricia to the innocent Hedwig, who is 9 years old. He’s just one actor, but McAvoy appropriately makes us feel like there is a whole conspiracy of people who kidnap girls, with the Shyamalan-esque intimation that they are food for some sort of monster.
Making it more than a straight thriller, we see Kevin interact with his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), an advocate for the notion that a personality that shares a body with others should be seen as a distinct person. And there is compelling evidence that she’s right. For instance, the personalities’ bodies are somehow different; one of them has diabetes, whereas the others do not.
As she was in “The Witch” – my No. 1 film of 2016 – Taylor-Joy is riveting, with a face and voice that naturally convey wide ranges of expression. Casey is calm enough in dealing with her captor that I suspected the much-buzzed-about twist might be that she is in on the game with him. Flashbacks to weird childhood experiences hunting with her dad and uncle let us get to know Casey, and we understand how she has learned helpful tips such as peeing your pants so the captor will leave you alone. By comparison, there is zero characterization for Claire and Marcia.
As is the case when Shyamalan brings his A-game, the script and directing details are impeccable. At one point Marcia is trying to open a sliding lock with a wire from the other side of the door. Some filmmakers might not have spent time on such a scene – especially if there’s no payoff to it — but Shyamalan’s films are often steeped in minute-to-minute experiences. The tension of the attempted escape allows a viewer to sympathize with Marcia – even though we know nothing about her other than that she’s a captive.
I think it’s safe to say Shyamalan is immersed in the comeback phase of his career, following his breakthrough period (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” “Signs” and “The Village”) and his collapse (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”). “The Visit” (2015) was an excellent horror update of the “Hansel and Gretel” premise. That film and “Split” benefited from the lessened hype that now surrounds Shyamalan after his period of panned films, but more importantly, they came from polished, smart, tight scripts, rather than weird experimenting.
Here are a few more observations about “Split” for those who have already seen it. (SPOILERS FOLLOW.)
- Having seen the closing-credits cameo by Bruce Willis’ “Unbreakable” character David Dunn, we now know “Split” is Shyamalan’s second stealth supernatural origin story. Far from a copy, though, “Split” feels fresh, in part because we get the story of a supervillain (The Horde, as Kevin’s personalities are collectively known) rather than a superhero this time, and also because 17 years have passed between the two movies. Both films start as a thriller, but develop comic-book elements gradually enough that it seems natural. Thus, the writer-director is able to deliver the most grounded of supernatural movies because we start off believing it is set in the real world.
- In a mild subversion of comic-book origin story cliches, Shyamalan suggests via his villain that Claire and Marcia are “impure” for having such normal upbringings. In Kevin’s eyes, Casey has more value for having survived childhood trauma – sexual abuse by her uncle, it’s implied — something he can relate to (it’s implied). Marvel’s and DC’s mainstream heroes are often groomed to be heroes. They may have a traumatic event in their childhood, but then they are often helped by mentors and they are often rich.
- Shyamalan’s consistently detail-oriented approach makes us think EVERYTHING means something. For example, where are the girls being held? We are as much in the dark as they are. The final answer to that question is inconsequential – it’s just a basement in the building where Kevin works (in fact, his occupation isn’t even clear) – but I’m left with a feeling that the mundane answer is substantial for its lack of substance. This trick won’t work on viewers in a more cynical mood – indeed, the lack of deeper meaning might frustrate some viewers — but I was in the mood for it with “Split.”
- The storylines of “Unbreakable” and “Split” will apparently coalesce in “Glass” (2019). Unavoidably, this will be a very different film than its predecessors, because we’ll know the world we’re in rather than having it intriguingly unfold before our eyes. Without the “Hey, this movie is more than it seemed on the surface” surprise, Shyamalan might have a tougher time pleasing audiences.