[NOTE: This is a repost of our review from Fantastic Fest; Split opens in theaters nationwide this Friday]
Ladies and gentlemen, M. Night Shyamalan has officially caught his second wind. Last year’s The Visit surprised audiences with a delightfully twisted spin on “to grandmother’s house we go,” and with Split Shyamalan has reaffirmed his status as B-Movie extraordinaire. You’re going to hear a lot about the end surprise here, it is Shyamalan after all, but do yourself a favor and don’t seek out the twist, because the movie is more than that. (And the end is no fun if you don’t earn it.) While the film’s final moments add an extra WTF delight that will prove rewarding to career-long viewers of Shyamalan’s work, it is essentially a tremendously sympathetic film about those who have suffered trauma and the strength it gives them.
As the title suggests, the film centers around James McAvoy as a young man, Kevin, with Dissociative Identity Disorder, or as it was referred to in crasser times, a split identity — 23 identities, to be exact. But as we learn over the course of the film, there is a 24th identity that threatens to emerge. That identity is “the beast”, and it hungers for the flesh of the clean and the unbroken as “sacred food”.
Split is spread out across three narratives. The first, which is the throughline for the film, follows the abduction of three teenage girls at the hands of McAvoy’s tormented personalities. The second follows the relationship between McAvoy’s characters with his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is quick to discern that her patient is demonstrating troubling signs of instability despite their long-standing progress. The third, and this one is important, follows The Witch breakout Anya Taylor-Joy‘s Casey, one of the girls Kevin abducted, in childhood flashbacks where her father taught her to be a survivor and her uncle taught her a much more twisted, sinister reality of life.
Much of the film plays out as a thriller as the three girls try to escape from their confinement while Dr. Fletcher attempts to suss out just how far Kevin has strayed from the path and exactly which personality she’s dealing with. The film will probably catch some heat for its portrayal of mental illness and abuse, but such complaints overlook the fact that the film treats all its victims, in all their varieties, with a tremendous affection.
The girls are smart from the word “go”. They make choices any of us might make in their situation, proactively seeking escape with a fighter’s spirit, and occasionally, an intuitive wit. It’s easy to sit back and judge fictional characters, but at no point do any of them make an obviously stupid decision, and much of the film plays out as a thriller as we root for the strong-willed young women to find a way out of captivity.
But Kevin, and Sage, and Dennis, and all the other multitudes within him are, against all expectation, equally sympathetic; each character within a character rendered with nuance and detail. Simply put, a movie like Split does not function without an actor of McAvoy’s caliber in the lead role. But Shyamalan also does his part with moments of cinematic flourish, my personal favorite being a shot of 23 toothbrushes scrunched together as a symbol of Kevin’s tightly-packed discord.
Because of McAvoy’s skill, we are able to know and empathize with every personality presented to us (even the three behind the sinister inciting act of the film), and Shyamalan uses that opportunity to alternately fun and emotionally engaging effect. In time, we find that Casey and Kevin are two sides of the same coin, each changed by their personal trauma, one made kind and one made dangerous. But the ultimate message is that which does not kill us, makes us stronger; that mental illness or the things that will allow society to mark us as “less than” may actually make us our strongest and our best. What if that which breaks us also makes us more than?
That said, Split is not without its flaws. The message becomes a bit on-the-nose in the third act with more than a little ham-fisted dialogue and it never quite reaches the level of visceral horror it seems to be striving for. It also has an unnecessary cruel streak towards a few characters who deserve better in the end. But those flaws are easy enough to forgive in such an engaging, entertaining, and ultimately (surprisingly) poignant stance on the broken and dismissed.
As for the final moments, it’s not a twist in Shyamalan’s conventional sense, but as I advised earlier, you’d do well to avoid it. It’s an extremely fun tag that made most of the audience scream “WHAT?” at the screen, and I have to admit I couldn’t stop smiling for about twenty minutes after the film. Because it’s Shyamalan, most of us spend the runtime waiting for the twist, but this one is so off the wall and so unconventional there’s truly no way you’ll ever see it coming.
Shyamalan is back, baby, and the best he’s been in decades.
Split is in theaters January 20.