(Author’s note: This is a three-part review/analysis of a film and storytelling techniques. As such it will run a little long, but trust me when I say it will be worth your time. The second part, “Split: The Rules We Make,” will contain spoilers, as will the third, “Split: The Point of No Return.”)
Whenever someone (literally or figuratively) opens their mouth to tell a story, they are promising several things to an audience:
- That the story will remain interesting.
- That the audience will go on a journey emotionally with the characters.
- That questions will have answers, or that you’ll at least get the pieces to figure them out yourself.
That last one is where many narratives falter. Fare like Kubrick’s “2001,” Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” or television’s “LOST” tends to leave the mysteries in the hands of viewers to decode, while a show like “Sherlock,” by necessity, must have its mysteries explainable so as not to defy the logic the show operates on. “Prometheus” existed in a world where aliens existed, where Engineers designed planets and species, where their motivations were literally beyond Man’s understanding. The monolith in “2001” is so vague that the audience is left with the abstract visuals to help them create an interpretation. All of these films create rules, then abide by them, even if the rules aren’t fully laid out for us.
And that brings us to M. Night Shyamalan, a director whose body of work remains divisive at best, blasphemous at its worst. From a stellar first four films (“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and yes, I’ll even defend “The Village”) to a heinous last four (“Lady in the Water,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender,” “After Earth”), Shyamalan has run the gamut from genius to pariah. With 2015’s “The Visit,” he seemed to regain some footing.
Enter “Split,” the latest effort from Shyamalan. The premise is simple, but ridiculous: a man, Kevin (James McAvoy), with 23 different personalities has kidnapped three teenage girls and is holding them hostage in a room. Why is he holding them? We don’t know. Where? We don’t know. Where is the real Kevin? We don’t know.
That’s all you need to know about the movie, and all that needs to be shared. As the girls, led by outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), try to devise different schemes to escape, they encounter various personalities living within Kevin. The mischievous nine-year-old Hedwig, a combination of innocent and malevolent; the proper and firm Patricia; the obsessive-compulsive, imposing Dennis; all these personalities and more are brought to startling life by McAvoy, who never once overplays it for cheap laughs or cheesy scares. I was especially compelled by Hedwig, who presents the biggest challenge for McAvoy as an actor. He pulls it off with aplomb.
As the film continues, we get two perspectives: the trapped girls dealing with their captor(s), and Kevin’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), who begins to sense that something is wrong with one of the personalities, Barry. Their paths are drawn continually together until it is revealed why the girls have been taken, and why it is vital to Kevin’s survival that they are there. Buckley and McAvoy’s scenes together crackle with electricity, and the cinematography, like the script, slowly unwinds to reveal more and more layers until we are moving rapidly through the climax.
Now, to return to the idea of the promise. At a point in this film (and don’t read anything about it for fear of spoilers), Shyamalan requires his audience to trust in him. Granted, he might not deserve that trust. And in fact, when the ‘answer’ (I say ‘answer’ instead of ‘twist’ because it is more a solution to a problem than a way to twist the story) is revealed, it will confuse and anger some viewers. This is normal. But I think that Shyamalan ought to be applauded for this effort: a straightforward thriller that will enthrall some and enrage others, with riveting performances across the board. Here, disassociative identity disorder is not treated as a joke nor threat. It is merely the springboard from which we dive into the ways a human being can have dimension and damages that change who they are.
And keep an eye out for a scene at the end involving a character and lightbulbs. I haven’t seen my knuckles that white in a long time.