Split FILM REVIEW
Release: 20 January 2017
Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson
Plagued by a syndrome known as Dissociative Identity Disorder that gives him 24 distinct personalities, Kevin (James McAvoy) decides to kidnap and imprison three young girls on their way home from a birthday party. Their purpose, he says, is to be fed to an ominous creature known as the “Beast” and the teenagers have to try and understand and use Kevin’s condition to their advantage, if they have any hope of escaping.
Portraying six of the 24 personalities on-screen, McAvoy gives quite a versatile performance in Split. Most of his screen time is spent as Dennis, Hedwig, and Miss Patricia, the most volatile of characters living inside Kevin. They have decided it’s time to ‘take the spotlight’, and they are determined to unlock the 24th, and most violent, personality to prove that Kevin can become more than human. The frequency and ease with which he switches from one to the other is impressive; he need only change his body language, facial expression, or accent and it immediately feels like we are seeing a different person on-screen. There’s a natural progression to it all, and it’s especially striking how he is able to switch from being the fashion designer Barry to the obsessive Dennis in a matter of seconds just by sitting up straight.
For the girls it’s a terrifying condition to get to grips with, and one that they spend most of the film trying to outsmart. Casey, Marcia, and Claire each try their best to thwart him. They break through walls, run through endless corridors, and manipulate his mental illness, but all their efforts seem to be in vain. Even when they decide to use Hedwig, the youngest and most vulnerable of the personalities, to their advantage it doesn’t take long before one of the others takes over, stopping them in their tracks. It is Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is the best at dealing with Kevin as their mutual suffering as children means that she understands how to act almost immediately. It’s a shame that she is the only fully realised character of the three girls but Taylor-Joy is able to adapt to the role well, and as time goes on she is able to develop as a character. Her lack of emotions in the film’s first half does take away from the terrifying nature of Kevin’s unpredictability somewhat.
For the most part, the film is set in one location: the underground bunker in which the three girls are kept. With a setting like this, it is natural to assume that there would be a tense and suffocating atmosphere when focused on these scenes. As the film never truly feels like it is stuck in one place, though, it fails to do this. Since we often see McAvoy visiting his therapist, and he is able to come and go as he pleases, it means that any feeling of claustrophobia is lost. Where other films have been able to bury themselves under your skin, Split simply doesn’t quite offer the same kind of fear.
The problem is that the depiction of Kevin’s condition isn’t the most helpful representation of a mental illness. This is particularly true when Kevin and his personalities logic is revealed with the appearance of the “beast”. The fact that his actions are directly related to his past trauma and current condition is more likely to hinder rather than aid society’s understanding of the illness he suffers from. While it is true that Split is ‘only a film’, this kind of depiction fuels stigma against those that actually suffer mental illnesses, and isn’t something that should be taken lightly.
Of M. Night Shyamalan’s recent directorial efforts Split is certainly good. The film is McAvoy’s for the taking, and with him at the helm Split is a decent horror film. It’s inability to really grab its audience or instil fear at key moments does, however, make it seem less effective in the face of other films in the same genre.
Review by Roxy Simons