Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Synopsis: Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities, and must try and escape before the apparent emergence of a
frightful new 24th.
Genre: Horror, Thriller
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (For disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence
and some language)
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Few things are more terrifying as a teenage girl than being kidnapped by a mentally unstable man and placed in an unknown room for an unknown purpose. Yet this is the situation that teenagers Claire, Marcia, and Casey find themselves in in M. Night Shyamalan's new thriller Split.
The film's premise comes across as slightly derivative--we've seen this abduction scenario before. But a key difference is the complex nature of the antagonist in "Kevin", a man suffering from DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) that harbors 23 personalities inside his brain. Claire, Marcia, and Casey soon discover this and attempt to use one personality over others to escape their captor.
As the hostage situation is taking place, Shyamalan cross cuts to scenes of interaction between Kevin and his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Though these scenes provide more insight into Kevin's sickness and his various personalities, they slow the pace of the film down considerably, and are much weaker than the tension that exists between Kevin and the teenage girls. Nevertheless the scenes do offer interesting, factual scientific information related to DID, and they do ultimately serve a purpose for the remainder of the story, though one could argue the purpose could have been fulfilled by other means.
Of the 23 personalities, Shyamalan only chooses to showcase a couple, which serves the story well and allows you to become acquainted with each of them without being bombarded by one personality after the other. Also, each of these personalities are so different that it's easy to distinguish between each of them, without confusing one with the other. Shyamalan accomplishes this by each personality wearing different clothing and having different mannerisms and quirks.
This leads into James MacAvoy's performance. Each of these personalities is analogous to playing different characters on screen, which is no easy task when each of the characters are played by a single actor. MacAvoy delivers a stellar, scene-stealing performance, easily one of the best of his career. He changes his facial expressions, mannerisms, movements, and even voice (when portraying the young "Hedwig") to accommodate and define each of the personalities. If the film was released in the later months of 2017, MacAvoy would almost certainly garner an Oscar nomination, but due to the January release his performance will likely (and sadly) be forgotten by the Academy.
Though MacAvoy dominates the film's performances, the teenage girls, particularly the young Anya Taylor-Joy deliver fine performances as well, showcasing raw terror, confusion, and awkwardness when dealing with the multiple personalities of Kevin. As he did in The Visit (2015), Shyamalan even throws in several comedic relief moments to lighten the tension, almost all of which had my theater laughing out loud. Most of these moments come from the lines of the nine-year old Hedwig and the girls' bewilderment of him. As mentioned earlier, the most entertaining scenes are the interactions between the girls and Kevin, as there's a wide-range of emotions and tensions employed, including (unsurprisingly) some sexual tension as they deal with an adult man and a child.
Ultimately, Split is a character-driven story, much like Shyamalan's earlier works like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000) where (without giving too much away) the background of characters play a pivotal role in the climax of the film. The film also possesses strong social commentary that is especially relevant in the dark times we live in today. The film is one of Shyamalan's best works, topping even his latest well-received The Visit (2015) and some earlier works like The Village (2004). Indeed, Shyamalan seems to be back as an expert crafter of the psychological thriller/horror film. One can only hope he continues down this path in future productions.