Split (2016)

Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed.

It’s official. M. Night Shyamalan — whom, to be honest, I had written-off completely — is back and almost better than ever, his 12th feature, Split, an oddly unique genre-bending thrill-ride that more or less recaptures the nerve-jangling essence of those much-loved mind-benders from his high-flying early career — think Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002) — this latest crowd-jolter arguably the filmmaker’s best picture since The Sixth Sense (1999).

Yes, some might say that 2015’s mildly spooky found-footage farce, The Visit, slightly revived the filmmaker’s once-bankable name, but honestly, it did nothing for me, even if it turned out to be the first Shyamalan flick in 13 odd years to receive a ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes — I guess that counts for something. You see, for the better part of a decade, the Indian-Born US artist had tortured worldwide moviegoers with a string of goofily banal big-budget blockbusters, such as The Happening (2008) and that dang-awful The Last Airbender (2010), which were met with poor audience and box office reception and were mocked (rightfully so, too) for having cringe worthy dialogue and ludicrous punchlines, the films themselves tarnishing Shyamalan once-cherished reputation.

'I've got to split.'
‘I’ve got to split.’

But all that’s about to change with Split, M. Night Shyamalan leaving those dreadful ‘Shama-lama-ding-dong’ days in the dust, having crafted a subversive high-concept nail-biter that somewhat signifies his return to form. And boy is this one a doozy. Washing away his stained reputation, reminding us all why his movies were so great in the first place, Split is ‘classic’ Shyamalan, the 46-year-old filmmaker weaving together an intelligent, layered and grippingly taut narrative — one that’s expertly plotted, too — the film, a dark, silly and confronting convergence of genres and ideas that features everything one could possibly hope to see from a Shyamalan outing.

Part psychological thriller, part horror and part something else entirely (no spoilers here), Split begins with a masterful intro that literally wastes no time, Shyamalan staging a chokehold opener that instantly sets the tone and mood. Based in a northeastern United States city — possibly Philadelphia, where the film was shot — a wistful, sharp-eyed teen, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), gets more than she bargained for after accepting a ‘mercy invite’ to attend a classmate’s birthday party. Stranded and with no way of getting home, the birthday girl, Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson), kindly insists that Casey grab a ride with her girlfriend, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and her ‘dorky’ dad (Neal Huff). As Mr. Benoit loads some items into the trunk, the young ladies wait patiently inside the car, until an eerie stranger (James McAvoy) hops into the front seat. But, before the girls have any time to figure out what had happened, they’re immediately knocked unconscious, only to find themselves trapped inside of a windowless, subterranean bunker when they wake, learning that they’ve been abducted in broad daylight.

... Oh Joy!
… Oh Joy!

As the mystery kidnapper torments the teenage detainees, they begin to realize that their abductor (a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb) suffers from a sort of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID for short) — or a split personality, if you will — playing host to 23 separate identities all living inside of the same one body, each with their own idiosyncratic quirks and attributes; the girls, however, are primarily visited by three of these ‘people’ — Dennis, a strong-minded OCD Southerner, Patricia, a prim yet menacing matriarch, and Hedwig, a lisping 9-year old boy who (apart from being a huge fan of Kanye West) seems easier to influence than his neighboring cohabitants. As the distressed high schoolers try to figure a way out of their cage, they quickly learn that they’re being held captive (or stored) as ‘sacred food’ for a 24th personality, The Beast, who is slowly but surely about to break free, this new persona set to dominate the others when it eventually arrives. As an internal war rages on in the recesses of Kevin’s fractured yet gifted mind — between the many identities contained within him — the walls of his splintered psyche begin to shatter, and with it, the girls’ chance for survival.

Veering his efforts back to modestly budgeted entertainers, writer-director-producer M. Night Shyamalan has concocted his most vigorously warped movie to date, the deft filmmaker elevating his trade whilst re-gaining viewers’ trust in the process, Split’s absorbing premise incessantly tapping into the most primal of human fears, so much so that our own reactions are likely to mirror the bemusement and shock of the kidnapped teens. Throughout this chiller, M. Night makes the most of his limited locations, the steely visuals generating a visceral sense of claustrophobic tension, and while far from being a fully-fledged fright-fest, proceedings, at times, do get pretty darn alarming, scenarios often shifting from comical to terrifying in the blink of an eye — a scene that sees Hedwig rave-dance in his bedroom is a shuddersome mix of hilarity and creepiness. If anything, Split confirms that ‘spectacle’ was clearly never Shyamalan’s forte; after all, the guy was always more of an ideas man.

A well-balanced meal
A well-balanced meal

Be that as it may, the film does feature M. Night’s usual touches — you know the deal, expository-heavy dialogue, deadpan humor and campiness (be it intentional or accidental), prolonged moments of silence and that ‘to be expected’ Shyamalan cameo. Sure, dealings are often over-the-top or tonally scrambled, but, surprisingly, everything works, probably more so than I care to admit. Even those Shyamalan trademarks (which usually annoy the s@#t outta me) generally work, too, for instance, constant peering through cracks or crevasses and that *sigh* inevitable eleventh hour ‘twist,’ which, here, actually left me wanting more, this sneaky last-minute surprise-reveal (probably Shyamalan’s most unusual) strengthening what came before rather than cheapening it — dare I say, I’m keen for a sequel!

With the film basically resting on the shoulders of its stars, the capable cast — given the arduous task of selling the ludicrousness — knock it right out of ‘The Village’ and into Central Park. Told from the viewpoint of two key players — a technique routinely used by Shyamalan — the movie is presented through altering perspectives. James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class (2011), is gleefully unnerving in his multiple-role act, the talented Scot showcasing his diverse range in a crazy all-out performance, one that’s totally fearless and a whole lotta fun, the 37-year-old playing a plethora of complex characters in a frightfully transfixing way, altering his physique, vocals and mannerisms to fit the many unstable ‘selves’ of Kevin. Literally jumping from one nuanced ‘manifestation’ to the next (often in the same scene), McAvoy’s smooth-headed, cross-dressing madman gives Norman Bates a run-for-his-money, Kevin perhaps taking the reigns as Hollywood’s kookiest cinema ‘Psycho.’

... close call ...
… close call …

Coming off her breakout role in 2015’s The Witch, the drop dead gorgeous Anya Taylor-Joy — whom I just adore — heads the trio of hostages as the shy yet shrewdly perceptive Casey, a different kind of ‘Final Girl.’ Shaped by her turbulent and traumatic past, seen through a series of haunting flashbacks, Casey’s harrowing origins allow the would-be victim to aptly assess her current-day predicament, Casey cautiously using every resource at her disposal to manipulate her twisted incarcerator. Feeding off McAvoy’s tempestuous energy, the 20-year-old model-turned-actress imbues the seemingly striking Casey with rawness and gentle intensity, the doll-faced Taylor-Joy selling all facets of the damaged heroine — her frailty, quiet strength, intuitiveness and gumption; Taylor-Joy’s praise-worthy expose proving, yet again, why she’s one of the best young women working in the industry today.

In terms of support, Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), and Jessica Sula, best known for playing Grace Violet on television’s Skins (2007), are equally solid as Casey’s wholesome and sheltered cellmates, Claire and Marcia, respectively — though both could have done with a little more fleshing-out — whose head-on attempts at escape land the ladies into more dour and dangerous territory. Finally, Betty Buckley, who previously worked with Shyamalan on 2008’s The Happening, is decent as Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s trusted psychiatrist, even if Buckley’s troubled shrink exists merely to churn out exposition, her interplay with ‘Barry’ — the level-headed slice of Kevin who normally deals with the outside world — sometimes denting the razor-edged pace.

'Black and yellow, black and yellow!'
‘Black and yellow, black and yellow!’

Thematically speaking, Split shines a poignant a light on hardship and trauma, and the strength that these afflictions bestow upon the affected, Kevin and Casey both ‘broken’ in their own distinct ways — how does the saying go, ‘that which does not kill us, makes us stronger.’ And while advocates for the mentally ill (or sufferers themselves) may deem the DID subject matter (along with McAvoy’s wacky portrayal) as slightly insensitive/ offensive, Shyamalan pushes the condition into the realm of the fantastical though still treating it with an earnest sense of reverence, opting to fashion a sympathetic yet over-the-top picture of a man battling schizophrenia, one that’s been overtly exaggerated to aid the story, each of Kevin’s identities understandable in their mindset, actions and words — no matter how dubious or sinister.

Elevated by the outstanding cinematography of Mike Gioulakis — who worked as DOP on one of my all-time favorite movies, It Follows (2014) — M. Night has, without a shadow of a doubt, proven that he’s still got a knack for making ‘good’ films, hatching a bold, audacious and compelling comeback whilst simultaneously drawing a career-best performance from McAvoy and a star-making act from the lovely Taylor-Joy. Look, it’s too early to say whether Shyamalan’s road to cinematic redemption will ultimately last, whatever the case, Split is certainly a big step in the right direction. I wholeheartedly dug every untamed, unhinged, side-splitting second of it!

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by S-Littner

Split is released through Universal Pictures Australia