M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ spins a devilish multi-personality web
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy & Betty Buckley
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
In theaters Jan. 20, 2017
Most actors work for years to get single juicy part in a major movie. Not everyone is as lucky as James McAvoy.
In the thriller Split, the Scottish star—best known for his portrayal of Professor Xavier in the X-Men movie franchise—gets almost two dozen, all at once.
As Kevin, a deeply disturbed young man with “dissociative identity disorder,” sometimes he’s Mr. Glass, a fastidious maintenance man. At other times he’s Hedwig, an unbridled 9-year-old boy; or Miss Patricia, a cross-dressing matriarch, or Dennis, Orwell, Jade, Norma, Hamlet or one of his other distinct personalities, 23 in all, each with his own manner of speaking, dressing, walking and talking.
The title refers to all those different personas, split into separate slices. Kevin—or is it Dennis?—is seeing his longtime psychiatrist (veteran actress Betty Buckley), Dr. Fletcher, who’s trying to sort them—and him—all out. She considers him a puzzle and a prime example of the mysteries of the mind.
But Kevin also has a much darker side: Dr. Fletcher has no idea that he’s also a psychopath who’s kidnapped three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sulu) and is holding them captive in a subterranean lair. Where are they? What he’s planning on doing with them—or to them? Can they escape? What—or who—is “the beast” he keeps telling them about? Why does he keep talking about “purity” and “evolution”?
Director M. Night Shyamalan is practically a brand name unto himself, known for his twists, turns and last-minute surprises in movies like The Sixth Sense, The Village, Unbreakable, Lady in the Water and The Visit. Here he takes somewhat standard horror movie stereotypes—teenage girls stripped to their undies, tormented by a crazy, creepy guy—but gives them a unique, Shyamalan-ian spin, and he doesn’t take the story where you’re probably thinking it’s headed…or where other movies with similar setups have gone.
Mental health professionals may disagree with the director, who also wrote the screenplay, especially about whether childhood traumas and suffering can “unlock the brain to the unknown and the supernatural.” That, you might remember, was somewhat of a theme in Shyamalan’s movie Unbreakable (2000), starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson.
But you certainly can’t deny Shyamalan’s imagination and his style. He weaves a devilishly demented web of clues, and you never know exactly where he’s going until he gets there. And when he does—well, hang on. It gets wild, in more ways than one.
As the lead hostage, Casey, Anya Taylor-Joy (terrific in last year’s breakout horror movie The Witch) proves her resourcefulness—mainly because of a backstory, explained and unfolded in flashbacks that reveal how her own childhood “scars” gave her some formidable survival skills.
But this is McAvoy’s show, as he switches from one “alter” to another, sometimes in a single scene. It’s a bravura acting job, unsettling and terrifying. Taylor-Joy gives a great performance in a role that calls on Casey to contain her panic, call on her past and confront more than one kind of beast.
Shyamalan, known for his final-scene shockers, saves a whopper for the very end. I won’t give it away, but I will say it made me wonder if the director might be thinking that Split could be split off into even more films, bridging Shyamalan’s own movie past with his future. Based on what I’ve seen, I say start splitting, Mr. S!