Split review – a fresh and original psychological thriller

by | 20 Jan 2017 | Film Reviews

‘Three girls are captured by a man with 24 personalities and must find the one’s that will help them escape.’

After his first few films back in the late Nineties and early Noughties, it seemed M. Night Shyamalan was the next big movie director destined to join the greats, and was usually compared to film makers like Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. Then, after a series of duds which showed no signs of improving and consistently got worse after each film, he had become a lost cause and synonymous with bad films.

That was until 2015’s The Visit, a “Found Footage” horror film which was actually a vast improvement on his previous efforts. Now with his latest film, Split, he seems to have come full circle, bringing us a quality psychological thriller that reminds us why we loved him in the first place.

The story follows three high school girls, outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and two popular girls played by Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson, who after a birthday party are kidnapped by a strange man, portrayed by James McAvoy. The three girls soon realise that their abductor suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) and has twenty three distinct personalities all vying for control with the three main ones being nine year old Hedwig, and grown-ups Dennis, and Patricia. These three are working together to unlock a mysterious twenty fourth personality they call “The Beast”.

Films that revolve around multiple personality disorders are hardly new, with Fight Club (1999), Identity (2003), and Primal Fear (1996) being just a few that explore this condition in various ways. Although many in the psychiatry community might contest the accuracy of how it is portrayed in many of these films, it is still makes for a fascinating concept and a great dramatic device for cinema.

Shyamalan uses it well here, and actually, brings his own unique spin and perspective on this intriguing condition, portraying a more supernatural element, and even giving a more evolutionary bent towards it, as Hedwig, Dennis and Patricia all believe “The Beast” to be some kind of next step in human evolution.

Refreshingly, what makes Split good is that Shyamalan doesn’t fall into the obvious traps many films that use Dissociative Identity Disorder do. For example, it’s way too often used as the major twist, like the killer didn’t know he did it because it was another personality. Apart from Fight Club (1999) it comes off as a cheap gimmick these days and an obvious get out clause when the writer can’t think of anything else.

Surprisingly then, for a film maker who’s renowned for his twist endings, this isn’t it (although it does have one that comes out of nowhere). In fact, right from the start we pick up pretty quickly what’s going on, as Shyamalan is far more concerned in the drama of this whole situation, and the plan of the three main antagonist personalities, instead of some big mystery to solve. It all adds a unique and original flare, and lets us see something we haven’t seen before in this type of film.

He also expertly creates a really suspenseful film, and as proven in his earlier works, knows how to skilfully build genuine tension without having to resort to cheap jump scares. Crafting Split not as a horror, but as a solid psychological thriller, where there’s this gradual build up to a nail-biting climax that is a great payoff to a well-paced narrative. It’s also good visual storytelling with some creepy cinematography that helps build that suspenseful and chilling tone. The only thing that spoils all this is some heavy exposition scenes by Betty Buckly’s psychiatrist who’s mostly there to spell everything out for the audience.

‘Split’ is also quite layered, as on another level it explores trauma, how it can shape someone and essentially make them stronger. This isn’t just shown through McAvoy’s character, but also Taylor-Joy’s Casey. She is someone who comes from an extremely broken home life, as revealed through flashback, and it makes her rock-steady and able to handle what’s going in a more rational way than the other two teens.

As Casey, Taylor-Joy’s performance was spot on, and she balances that strength and vulnerability really well, making her a very compelling character, who as the main protagonist, is someone you’ll easily care and root for. Taylor-Joy is an extremely talented young actress and even with just a few films under her belt, shows she can hold her own alongside the more experienced McAvoy; she’s clearly destined for great things.

Speaking of which, McAvoy is fantastic and easily steals the film as the unhinged kidnapper. He throws himself into that role and is clearly relishing the chance to play something very different to what he’s done in the past. It’s a part that requires a considerable amount of skill and McAvoy shows he’s more than up to the task, as he seamlessly transforms from one personality to the next, giving each one distinct characteristics that you’ll almost forget your watching one actor play several different people.

It’s mostly through this character that Shyamalan cleverly injects some well-placed humour, knowing that this slightly heightened and fantastical world requires a light touch to it every now and again to keep it from becoming a completely dour experience. It would be off-putting if it wasn’t for the skill of the director, as he places these moments at just the right places so it never overshadows the overall tone of the film, but also makes sure it’s still entertaining and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

‘Split is a great return from a director who lost his way for a while.’

With a couple of excellent, courageous performances from Taylor-Joy and McAvoy. Some chilling cinematography and a fresh take on the multiple personality disorder film, it will be something that can be appreciated on various levels. Welcome back Mr Shyamalan, you have been missed.

David Axcell

Film Critic

David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.

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