Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Izzie Leigh Coffey
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:57
Release Date: 1/20/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 19, 2017
M. Night Shyamalan's Split is a thriller with a perspective from a time when the stigmatization of mental illness was rarely, if ever, considered. The two central characters—a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (or, as was previously known, multiple personality disorder) and a teenage girl whose own mental health issues have gone undiagnosed—are victims of substantial physical and sexual abuse. Shyamalan treats them as broken people, incapable of living anything approaching a "normal" life.
The teenager acts out in class so she can get detention and is completely antisocial. The man kidnaps three girls in order to carry out a blood sacrifice that's demanded by a new identity that is emerging. Needless to say, there's a psychiatrist character who exists to explain all of this in easily digestible terms (There's a line late in the movie that is almost directly lifted from the Wikipedia entry on DID), and even furtherly needless to say, all of those explanations exist solely because they're essential to the movie's plot.
The movie has neither empathy nor even sympathy for either of these characters. It treats Kevin (James McAvoy), the man with DID, as a joke or a threat. It's difficult to tell which approach is worse, although such distinctions are meaningless in this context. In terms of seeing this character as anything beyond his mental issues, they're both bad, and as an additional insult, both approaches are poorly handled in general.
McAvoy's performance is certainly to be commended for its technical proficiency. The actor, playing seven of Kevin's over 20 identities throughout the movie (in addition to Kevin himself and someone or something else that makes a late appearance), makes severe distinctions in both vocal and physical qualities in the portrayal of the assorted identities. There are clear choices and a dedication to sticking to those choices here. It's tempting to forgive the almost caricature-like approach to a few of them—or maybe pass the buck to Shyamalan's direction of the performance and writing of the character, since so much else that's wrong here can be placed at the writer/director's feet.
The girl, played with far more restraint and a seemingly genuine degree of understanding by Anya Taylor-Joy, is Casey. Dennis, one of Kevin's identities, abducts Casey and two of her classmates (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) on their way home from a party, locks them in a cell of stone and drywall in an undisclosed location, and tells them that they will be a sacrifice to a mysterious entity called "the Beast."
The mechanics of this setup should be obvious: The girls repeatedly attempt to escape, while Kevin's various identities try to keep them detained until the arrival of the Beast. The supposed tension comes from the shifting of identities as the girls devise ways to escape, before each of them is taken away into seclusion one by one. Dennis is very particular and tidy, with a capacity for violence just beneath the surface.
That about ends any sense of the severity of this situation. Shyamalan plays the other, most significant personalities as something of a joke. The director divides first appearance of Patricia, a calm but stern woman, between the identity introducing herself and showing the girls' stunned, confused reaction to the sight of Kevin in drag. The intercutting means that the reaction shots inform the tone of the scene—and the remaining appearances of that personality. It turns the situation from one of menace to one that emphasizes a sort of general weirdness. The same goes for Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy whom Kevin assumes the identity of, with his lisped speech and childish enthusiasm.
These are jokes, basically. No amount of psychoanalysis from Kevin's doctor (played by Betty Buckley)—and there's plenty of it—can make us believe that Shyamalan cares about Kevin's condition or Casey's continuing trauma—beyond sensationalism and the requirements of his plot.
As for Casey, a series of flashbacks to her childhood reveals the horrifying reason for the way she acts. Shyamalan doesn't quite treat it as one of his trademarked twists (Technically, there isn't one here, save for a literally last-second cameo, which re-frames and, somehow, further trivializes everything that has happened), but it is still a form of manipulation. Given the nature of that back story and the way Shyamalan resolves it with a pandering bit of dialogue, the treatment of Casey's character turns out to be even more discomforting than that of Kevin.
Aside from its foundational issues, the movie occasionally works in its formal execution (Shyamalan remains quite adroit in how and when his camera reveals and conceals information). Split, though, tries to be more than a run-of-the-mill thriller, and because of that, it's much less.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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