“Split” does nothing to improve director’s reputation
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) is a psychological disorder in which a single person displays multiple distinct personalities. Previously, this condition was known as Multiple Personality Disorder. It’s widely believed the condition arises as a defense mechanism to help the patient deal with some sort of childhood trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. These personalities each have a distinct name and personality traits, and they function independently of the other identities.
The idea of multiple personalities is great subject matter for the thriller and horror genre. However, glossing over mental health disorders and presenting trauma as a superpower can also be dangerous and further propagate the belief that those suffering are somehow faking or exaggerating their anxieties.
The opening sequence is strong with an eerie abduction of three girls — Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — as they wait in the car for Claire’s dad to finish packing the truck. Instead, a stranger enters the driver’s seat, and with a cold and calculated confidence, he places a surgical mask on himself and uses aerosol to knock out his three victims.
During the film, we discover that the kidnapper is more than he seems to be. We’re introduced to Dennis, the buttoned-up, OCD-afflicted character who has a proclivity for underage girls; Patricia, the shawl-wearing, cold, dominant and conniving woman; Benny, the fashion designer; Kevin, the original identity; and Hedwig, a 9-year-old with a habit for adding “et. cetera” at the end of his sentences. There are 19 others, too, but why Shyamalan chose the number is odd in itself, since just these five characters and The Beast — the future of human evolution given an identity — are explored.
James McAvoy is easily the best part of the film, and his ability to give an identity to the characters is impressive. Costume changes, facial tics, speech patterns and forehead furrowing differentiate when a given identity is in control. A comical scene featuring 9-year-old Hedwig marvelously captures the sense of pride a child might feel after performing some “killer dance moves” while listening to Kanye West.
It’s no surprise that the film’s major bumps come when the director leaves the confines of this claustrophobic house of horrors. Some of the film takes place at the therapy offices of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she attempts to unravel the mysteries of Kevin’s damaged brain. These scenes are well acted and feature more of McAvoy’s genius, but they also release much of the pressure created by the film’s more tense moments. Likewise, the inclusion of flashbacks to Casey’s traumatic past is simply clumsy.
Despite McAvoy’s impressive performance, the movie fails because Shyamalan was clearly more excited about his twist than finding a cogent end to his film. The finale leaves the viewer in a state of disbelief and feeling absolutely betrayed. ♦