Split (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2016) – Three girls plan their desperate escape from a man with 23 distinct personalities, before the emergence of his 24th, known as The Beast.
If The Visit marks M Night Shyamalan’s probable return to form, Split reassures us that his success was no fluke.
It is a wonder what the human brain can do. Manifold personalities can exist within a single mind, each with individual ideals and purpose. Where a spectator sees awe, the afflicted must see fear and pain. How do you live with the knowledge that your life is not your own?
Despite multiple cases on record, not much about Dissociative Identity Disorder is conclusive. It is no surprise that psychological thrillers have repeatedly exploited it as a subject of horror. When films like Identity and Shelter turn this very real disorder into a motive to madness, it is essential that audiences must understand this, is but fiction.
That being said, Split proves a solid psychological thriller, with more than what the simple story line purports. In Kevin (James McAvoy) and his 23 personalities, psychiatrist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) sees not only truth, but the answer to unlocking the human mind’s full potential.
There are fantastical elements to this seemingly grounded story. Fletcher believes that her patients are capable of altering not only their personalities, but their physique and body chemistry. The broken are the more evolved, the motif recurs. Given few limits to what the mind can conjure, her hypothesis reinvents reality – what is within the mind gains the ability to charge right out of imagination.
James McAvoy lends his proven versatility to this difficult leading role, having shown impressive range in films like The Last King of Scotland and Atonement. Rather than an all-out villain, he portrays with sensitivity a sympathetic man slipping out of control, and in need of help before it is too late.
His efforts end in a losing battle as varying complex personas dominate his body for a voice. A glimpse of hope lies in his impressionable nine-year-old Hedwig, while pure dread follows the impulsive dark nature of Dennis and Patricia.
Danger amplifies when Dennis abducts three girls, intended as sacrificial offerings for a 24th personality, ominously known as The Beast. What is real, and what isn’t? His genuine belief in the creature’s faint existence sustains palpable foreboding. Terror takes shape from the preaching of The Beast’s awakening, its shadows wavering between nightmare and reality for his young victims.
While Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) plan their reckless escape, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) chooses to observe for a safe route back to the outside world. And there is much more than she lets on. Embodying that sliver of faith towards freedom, she harbours secrets in her childhood that may hold the key to her cell.
In her lasting ordeal, director M Night Shyamalan plays to his strength in building atmospheric terror within the confines of few locations. Powerful performances make for a riveting watch, continuing his success in small-scale thrillers following The Visit.
A tint of discomforting humour never does much to draw away from the serious affair. The result is a decent genre entry and a fantastic comeback, made brilliant with a second, final reveal.
Not much can be said without ruining the fun, although plenty of foreshadowing ensures you will get there before the minutes end. Fans of his earlier films will be pleased as the unveiled connection redefines The Beast’s rising, teasing something bigger in the works.