When it comes to an M. Night Shyamalan film, there’s always an air of fearful trepidation.
Shyamalan burst into the mainstream with The Sixth Sense, a suspenseful horror film which coined the ever popular phrase, “I see dead people.” Since then, it’s fair to say he’s had an up and down career. If his films were dropped on a giant-sized scale, on one side the entertainingly brilliant Signs, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village (underrated despite the predictable ending) would counterbalance the undeniably dull and dreadful The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth.
It’s natural to feel that trepidation because just like that scale it becomes a careful equilibrium. Here’s a director that showed promise and for whatever reason, the proceeding films have been a hit or a miss, depending on its execution.
Thankfully Split on the brilliant side of the scale.
Split is a film that’s both challenging and psychologically twisted that it could have gone wrong – easily wrong. But Shyamalan carefully handles the subject matter and does what he’s done best by keeping things relatively simple and contained. Split draws you into the madness by keeping the audience engaged and on their toes. And despite a few issues with the plot and the ending, Shyamalan is back on blistering form in a thoroughly entertaining and tense film.
“He’s done awful things to people and he’ll do awful things to you.” – Hedwig
There’s something spiritual about Split. M. Knight Shyamalan once again returning to a familiar trait which has been synonymous with his previous films – the art of fear.
The audience’s fear in a Shyamalan film (other than if it’s good or not) is to work out what is going on. It’s a psychological horror in the mode of a Hitchcock thriller rather than a blood and guts spectacle that rapidly loses impact due to its predictable formula and unappealing characters. The expression and exploration of that fear keeps characters rooted by questioning the nature of their reality. In The Sixth Sense, Cole (Haley Joel Osment) could see dead people. While questioning the meaning of his life, David Dunn (Bruce Willis) discovers he has superhuman abilities after surviving a train crash in Unbreakable. In some instances, that fear turns into a physical manifestation. In the underrated film The Village, it was the fear of a predatory monster stalking the woods that kept the villagers within their homely boundary.
Split is no different and like Shyamalan’s previous films there’s a transformation and a judgement made upon that reality. You may know it as a twist but in Shyamalan’s world, something is coming. Something will be revealed and acts as a revelation.
So why spiritual? Well in the case of Kevin (James McAvoy), he undergoes twenty-three different personalities. On display we witness eight which are all uniquely different.
Think of Split like a baptism. It is the Christian sacrament of admission and adoption into the faith. Covered or immersed in holy water, we wake up anew and purified. Our sins are washed away as we begin our new way of life.
Well Split is the anti-baptism!
When dealing with such a degree of complexity, the personalities become consuming. One personality is violent, the other is over-protective. One personality is innocent and child-like and the other is motherly. There’s always a constant conflict between them all. There’s a survival of the fittest mentality, an animalistic instinct as they fight for the ‘light’ to be the dominant force of the host. Some submit to the pressure and others resist as they await the final judgement. They are periods of contrition, trying to be manageable and keeping up appearances whilst understanding their new-found belief. So what starts out as a typical horror film involving three kidnapped teenagers, turns into something unconventional. Because how do you handle a situation when your abductor is unstable? Where do you even begin to get into a mindset of a character when he’s constantly unpredictable? Because of the ever-changing personalities and circumstances, this is where McAvoy’s performance becomes outrageously good.
McAvoy is deliberately unnerving for such a challenging and difficult role. He sends your emotions into a chaotic disarray. You want to be empathetic, sympathising with Kevin’s personal ordeal but at the same time you can’t trust him. There are moments of unintentional hilarity but he also invades your personal space with uncomfortable ease. There are no boundaries and that’s terrifying to even contemplate.
To give context to Kevin would be to use a familiar superhero analogy. Think of Christopher Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent. When Reeves was Clark Kent he was clumsy and a little out of his depth, his glasses would hang down a little and his posture almost hunchback in nature. But when he was Superman, his posture changes – he stood taller, his voice confident and the glasses becomes an unnecessary accessory. By Reeves establishing this persona, we get a balanced intricacy of a dual identity. McAvoy has to do this for eight different identities! This is not just throwing on a different voice each time. This is not Me, Myself & Irene where Charlie/Hank (Jim Carrey) was wrongly diagnosed as a schizophrenic. This is a total and complete transformation, a dissociative identity disorder where on some occasions the transformation occurs instantaneously. The great thing about the performance is that you never really know how he became that way, just like Norman Bates in Psycho. You get your hints that you can infer from, but it’s largely kept a mystery. That plays into the power of the film.
For the kidnapped teenagers, the situation becomes a far from ideal situation. Two of them approach it in a way that would be best served in Scary Movie – their antics were good enough for parody. But for Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), her experience is juxtaposed with Kevin’s because her character has an equally troubling past. Her engagement with Kevin is a zero sum game where the hunted becomes the hunter and vice versa – survival of the fittest.
What Shyamalan brings to the forefront is the issue of mental health. Is it an accurate portrayal? Probably not and if you were an actual clinical psychologist you probably would reference it but not base your entire thesis on it as an extreme case study. In fact you could go as far as saying it’s a negative representation of the disorder, used as a gimmick to tell a horror story. But when you look past that, Casey and all the personas that Kevin comprehends with, the identities become coping mechanisms to deal with reality. How they approach it varies from purposeful isolation to extreme and delusional disorder.
“You like to make fun of us, but we are more powerful than you think.” – Dennis
Where Split is sadly let down is in the film’s conclusion. It’s completely unnecessary because it does either of the following – it sets up a potential sequel (which I hope it doesn’t) or acts as a confirmation to a reality.
It wasn’t needed because it distracts and takes a shine off McAvoy’s performance. The tact-on scene was a twist too far when it had a decent conclusion. Maybe not the best of conclusions but a ‘less is more’ approach is what it lacked. Had it ended where it should, it could have opened up the debate about the significance instead of immediately confirming it in the next scene.
But ultimately the journey with Split is worth remembering. It’s compelling and tense without relying too much on the usual horror clichés and tropes.
So yes, this is Shyamalan back at his best. He constantly builds the tension throughout and McAvoy steals the show. Is it the type of film that will win awards? Probably not but Split knows exactly what it is and if you’re looking for something different, then this could be for you.