Review by Siobhán Rich for Mr. Will Wong
The best part of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest psychological thriller is James McAvoy. Playing the role of a man with living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, McAvoy is mesmerizing as he introduces the audience to seven of the 24 personalities hidden inside Kevin Crumb’s mind. From coldly calculating OCD-Dennis to innocent Hedwig, McAvoy plays each personality as its own distinct character rather than an offshoot or quirk of the greater whole. Written and directed by Shyamalan, Split marks the return of a master.
When Claire, Marcia and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy respectively) are kidnapped after a birthday party they awake to find themselves imprisoned in a make-shift room with two beds and a rather nice looking ensuite bathroom. The three girls slowly meet the personalities hidden within their kidnapper and realize their time is limited unless they band together to escape. Introverted loner Casey agrees with the overall idea but believes that subtlety rather than brute force is the best plan.
In the meantime, Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Tony Award winner Betty Buckley), continues to visit with her client trying to discern why he seems so different from the person she is used to speaking with. She works with people suffering from DID and has a theory about how their personalities interact and “come into the light” to take over their host and protect them both physically and psychologically. Her concern for her patient, however, never fully develops past the idea that he may be the key to her future professional glory.
A lot pressure is placed on Richardson, Sula, and Taylor-Joy to sell their roles as the kidnap victims without sinking too deeply into B-Movie victim territory. Despite the rampant over-sexualization of these young women, they all tread carefully through the minefield of Shyamalan’s horror tropes.
Split works best when it is grounded in the realm of psychological thriller. Shyamalan’s instance at returning to the supernatural in the final section of the movie is when his script is at its weakest. Like 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Split attempts to question the terror of fictional monsters versus the monsters that exist in everyday life. The slow reveal of Casey’s backstory is more interesting than the idea of “the Beast” that may exist within Kevin.
As with all M. Night Shyamalan Movies, the less the audience knows going in the better as the element of surprise has always been the strongest weapon in his arsenal. Advisories to avoid trailers and reviews more spoilery than this deliberately vague one are to be taken seriously. Buy your ticket knowing that you might be witnessing one of the best performances of 2017 and that no one ever really knows what is going on inside another person’s mind.
Universal Pictures Canada release SPLIT on Friday, January 20, 2017.