Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
M. Night Shyamalan delivers his best film since Unbreakable in a tense and claustrophobic thriller with James McAvoy shining in a number of different (but equally terrifying) roles.
Outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy), attending a party none of her classmates want her at, is kidnapped along with Marcia (Sula) and Claire (Richardson) by an eerily calm and focused man who swiftly incapacitates Claire’s father, enters the car the girls are waiting in and knocks them all out before driving away.
The girls are being held captive by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder and who holds, in his mind, 23 distinct personalities. The personality who took the girls is Dennis, a man with violent tendencies and OCD. Noticing Dennis’ compulsion for cleanliness and order, Casey uses this to the girls’ advantage when Dennis tries to take Marcia and yells at her to pee herself, knowing that Dennis wouldn’t be able to cope with the mess and he abandons his plans.
The girls’ first encounter with a second personality, cementing their terror as they realise the gravity of their increasingly bizarre abduction, is Patricia. Marcia and Claire spy a woman through the keyhole of the locked door conversing with Dennis and plead for the softly spoken lady to rescue them.
When Patricia enters the room they not only see that it’s the same person who abducted them, but register that Patricia and Dennis were just having a discussion on the other side of the door. The sight of a shaven-haired McAvoy dressed in heels and a skirt trying to reassure the terrified teenagers is as startling as it is awkwardly hilarious. Patricia describing Dennis by saying “he’s not well” is, perhaps, one of the most chilling moments in psychological horror history, up there with Annie Wilkes being a fangirl, Jame Gumb’s obsession with lotion and Jack Torrance struggling with dividing his time between work and recreational activities.
Kevin attends therapy with Dr. Fletcher (Buckley) who believes that people with Dissociative Identity Disorder can exhibit a multitude of physiological states as well as psychological. The personality that talks with Dr. Fletcher is Barry, an extroverted leader who controls the ‘light’ – the method in which the 23 personalities take turns to control Kevin’s body. But Dr. Fletcher is convinced that it’s not Barry she’s talking with, but Dennis. She also reveals that she’s aware that Dennis and Patricia are banished from the light because of their “beliefs”. The expelled duo have supplanted Barry in an effort to bring forth a 24th personality, the Beast.
The person who now controls who gets their time in the light is Hedwig, a nine year old boy who’s eager to please Patricia and Dennis and has taken to talking with the girls. Hedwig, like any other nine year old, can’t fully grasp the seriousness of the impending doom or the danger the girls are in.
Shyamalan has succeeded in delivering a genuinely terrifying psychological horror that, in the spirit of the Shining, also has aspects of the paranormal. The taut atmosphere conjured by a crescendo of fear and paranoia is compelling and repellent in equal measure, making for a wonderfully, thrilling ride. Alarm that Split may have entered into the murky waters of stigmatising mental health disorders by tapping into that particular genre which plays on the popular fear of unpredictability of such conditions are unfounded as this film gently moves from thriller to supernatural horror.
McAvoy is wonderful to watch as he transitions from personality to personality. His ability to portray convincing roles from wide-eyed child to obsessive sociopath, from matriarchal menace to flamboyant artist is truly exceptional. Whilst chilling, it’s also worth noting his ability for comic timing, especially as Patricia. His uncomfortably long pauses and insincere attempts to convey comfort with mock-sympathetic glances are extraordinarily hilarious and will leave audiences laughing into their popcorn.
As is the nature of Shyamalan’s films it’s impossible to delve too deeply into the plot because you know there’s going to be spoilers and twists and no one want to shatter that illusion like it’s made of glass.
An authentically scary couple of hours in a world bereft of genuine cinematic scares.