‘I’ ON CULTURE
M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie Split is a tour de force, but only if you like twisty, snarky horror films. Nothing is exactly as it seems, and the audience squirms as he turns what seemingly is an old-fashioned slasher movie with a mentally ill villain into a character study that is, in itself, often not what it appears to be. An incredible performance from headliner James McAvoy is at the center of all of this — and he is scary indeed.
Multiple personality disorders have proven a very successful sub-genre of the horror business, going back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is now called dissociative identity disorder… but a rose by any other name, etc. We get a non-fantasy villain who has no control but is not necessarily just a villain.
Simple villainy works only up to a certain point, because the audience quickly turns away from that kind of person. However, “mock psychology” provides a way to create interesting people who do horrid things. That is, to some degree, what we have in this film.
Three young women, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped by Kevin (McAvoy) after a party. He is able to do it by just getting into their car, putting on a surgical mask and spraying them with something that knocks them out.
The girls find themselves in a locked basement, dirty and old but with a nice clean, well-lit bathroom (sort of a cliché for slasher films). Casey, who previously had been traumatized, was not a target but wound up with the other two. She is a far better survivor and the clear heroine of the story.
Kevin is one of 23 separate identities abiding in their captor. The captor, in a few of his personalities, visits Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a very supportive psychologist, who blames the multiple personality issue on a childhood marked by abuse and is convinced that Kevin/Dennis/Hedwig/Patricia and so forth is a new step forward in evolution.
Of course, evolution seems to also create better predators, and the good doctor seems blissfully unaware of that possibility.
Shyamalan brilliantly introduces us to the different personalities gradually. The girls wind up horrified as the captor at times seems to be a 9-year-old, at other times a rather Victorian woman and a somewhat crazed young man — but all of the characters warn about the coming of “the Beast,” clear reference to the new developing personality and a hint of what might be ahead.
Of course, rather than go to totally new paths, the movie goes to the cliché of having several young women with not much in the way of clothes, locked in a basement and facing great danger.
Shyamalan moves through all this thanks to well-done performances by the whole cast. Taylor-Joy provides a very strong performance, something necessary as a balance wheel against what should have been a typical teen slasher movie. She is intrepid and smart. The other two young actresses, Richardson and Sula, also are excellent.
Buckley was very good, clearly empathic although at times clueless. Her certainty that her patient’s evolution is a good thing could have been used as a nasty joke, but she manages to come across as a decent person and a good psychologist, even though she is totally, horribly wrong about the results.
However, McAvoy’s work is what lifts this movie far above the norm. He seems to become each of the personalities depicted (about eight). There is no makeup, no special effects. But his personality, his quirks are different for each. It’s a bravura performance. After a while, the audience knows which personality they’re watching within seconds.
The camera work by Michael Gioulakis also provides an extra measure of suspense. He jumps from one point of view to another, from the victims to their captor, building suspense. This is not the story of one person, but of several. That connection builds up the visceral tension. We actually see the varied points of view, and that builds the suspense.
If you like this kind of movie, you will love Split. I am not a big fan, so I just found it an interesting but not thrilling film. But it certainly does fascinate, and there were many appreciative fans in the audience.