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While flawed in many respects, Split marks a welcome return to form for writer and director M. Night Shyamalan.
Three teenage girls are kidnapped by one of the 23 personalities inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with severe dissociative identity disorder, and are held captive in a cellar for some unknown, sinister purpose. While they try to find a way to escape, Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), starts to suspect something is troubling her patient.
The 23 personalities were a cornerstone of the marketing for the movie, but in reality, Split focuses mainly on four of Kevin’s identities – Patricia, Dennis, Barry and Hedwig – while glimpses of a few others are shown to various degrees later on. That being said, James McAvoy’s performance is undoubtedly the highlight of Split – he makes each personality distinct and interesting, with one of the best scenes in the movie having him switch between several in quick succession. The various voices, inflections and mannerisms, as well as the costume design help easily distinguish between the identities and give McAvoy a lot of room to flex his acting chops. It’s an actor’s playground and he’s absolutely having a blast with it.
Split is definitely not meant as a serious examination of dissociative identity disorder, in so much as it uses it as a springboard to create a compelling character with a supernatural twist. The movie goes to great lengths to give Kevin depth as a character, showing that even though some of his identities are violent or have sinister beliefs and intentions, many others are calm, peaceful and perfectly rational. Through his conversations with Dr. Fletcher, we’re made aware of the circumstances of his childhood trauma, which informs many of his identities in interesting ways.
Herein lies the main problem with Split – none of the other characters are anywhere near as interesting or as developed as Kevin is. Of the three kidnapped girls, only Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is given a good amount of screen time. The other two are barely in the movie and serve no real narrative function. Casey herself is also not that interesting. Her character traits are explained via clunky, forced exposition in the opening scene and throughout the movie, we see flashbacks to her childhood that establish her backstory. By the end, however, there is no real arc to her character and that makes the backstory bits feel tacked on and unnecessary. Simply put, even though their lives were in danger, you’re never really given a reason to care if these girls survive or not, which deflates a lot of the movie’s tension.
Scary isn’t the right word to describe Split. While it has a few good scares in it, it’s mostly a movie that aims for unnerving and unsettling along with a surprising amount of laughs. Shyamalan has a real knack for the darkly humorous here, and Kevin threads the line between amusing and creepy exceptionally well, both in terms of how he’s written and how McAvoy plays him. The direction is slow and measured and while some of Shyamalan’s stylistic choices don’t work (a few of the ‘talking directly to the camera’ moments end up feeling a bit off), it’s mostly very effective at setting up the appropriate tone.
The movie might have worked better if it had a stronger focus on the relationship between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher, possibly keeping the kidnapping of the girls as a reveal for the ending, especially since the actual ending is pretty disappointing. It’s a confrontation between Casey and Kevin, and since you’re not really invested in what happens to Casey, it feels pretty lackluster.
There is one more twist, which long-term fans of Shyamalan will be pretty excited about, but while it’s certainly fascinating and opens up very interesting possibilities for future stories, it has no immediate relation to Split’s narrative. As such, it simply doesn’t work as an ending and really should have been kept as an after credits scene instead.
At its best, Split finds M. Night Shyamalan in rare form and the character of Kevin alone may very well be reason enough to see it. It’s still not really a good movie though, what with the boring, underdeveloped characters of the girls and its unsatisfying ending. If you were hoping for Shyamalan’s comeback, this a work in progress – emphasis on the progress. For all this movie’s faults, its writer and director has done considerably worse in the past.