Directed by M Night Shyamalan
Back in 2010 a video went viral of an audience laughing as M Night Shyamalan’s name came onscreen. Fresh off the back of his evil plants epic The Happening, and the similarly badly received Last Airbender, the former ‘next Spielberg’s brand had been contaminated. Then Smith-dynasty flop After Earth came next. But, in a surprising turn, low-key horror-comedy The Visit made an impressive return to form. Now, a year later and he’s back with a kidnap thriller about three girls abducted by 23 people.
The twist is all 23 of these people are in one body. You see, Kevin (McAvoy) has the controversial diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder aka split personality disorder. And to make things worse there’s a 24th on their way known simply as The Beast. Needless to say Claire (Richardson), Marcia (Sulu) and their shy acquaintance Casey (Taylor-Joy) are terrified when they meet Kevin’s alteregos: a line-up that includes the sinister but motherly Patricia, sneaky germophobe Dennis, fashion designer Barry and the 9 year old Hedwig. Luckily they have someone else unknowingly in their corner, with one of Kevin’s personalities seeking help from his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Buckley). Unfortunately, it seems his more “unstable” persona are taking over. Barry assures her they’re not, though is it really him she’s speaking to?
Obviously much of the success of this film relies on a strong central performance. Luckily McAvoy is on stellar form, successfully capturing several distinct personas. Each has their own idiosyncrasies too, whether it is in the tone of voice, their stance or even their walk. The bits where he goes from one to another, or is one pretending to be another, are a tour-de-force, and though he can play Kevin as very vulnerable he’s also never less than threatening. Though it’s not just McAvoy that delivers scares here. Shyamalan, once again, shows himself to be an adept horror director and many of the set pieces are genuinely brilliant. The car-park opener is as strong a set-up as we’re likely to see this year. Some of the escape attempts are also very tense, and though he never quite achieves a feeling of claustrophobia he definitely does establish a sense of dread for much of the first two thirds.
It’s not that the last act is bad – it’s actually fairly accomplished. Yet it feels like the final 20 minutes of a different, and much dumber, film. The pace gets amped up and some of the threat gets lost with the villain becoming more generic. That being said, unlike other reviewers I’ve spoken to I could go with the plot developments. The first “twist” was well telegraphed and felt inevitable from the start. However, I hated the direction in which the character arcs were led. The abductees are never really characterised, with Casey being the only one we learn even a thing about. Shyamalan appears to think he’s done enough groundwork though, and makes the finale rest on a fairly poor emotional parallel (with her side told in flashbacks) that has no real resolution. Then there’s the now obligatory thematic ending that plagues most studio-horrors. To be fair to Shyamalan, despite working with multiplex fillers Blumhouse his work never feels like much of a compromise. That is save for a ridiculous plot development that necessitates the characters strip to their underwear (that’s then undermined by a lack of sexual threat).
Lately Split has begun to gather some negative attention for giving the villain DID. As someone who works as a psychologist, when I’m not reviewing movies, I thought I’d find this element more off-putting. Yet there are attempts to align the script with the science, it includes bits on daily problems and it’s not like Kevin is shown in an exclusively negative light. Furthermore, there’s something refreshing about a film about mental illness that explores the diagnosis a bit without resorting to sentimentality. That and, to be fair, it’s pretty damn good. I suspect next time a trailer drops the laughs will become cheers. Now who’d have seen that coming?