M. Night Shyamalan’s latest adventure in psychological horror — about a kidnapper with 23 different personae living inside him — is itself a victim of a split personality disorder
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 116 minutes
Rating: 2½ stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
M. Night Shyamalan made some good early movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable), then slowly sank into some later movies (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth) that were so bad that the only explanation is that he did it on purpose. You could make an argument that his career is a meta-horror movie: a filmmaker goes mad with success and punishes audiences with Jaden Smith.
Well, surprise, or something. He’s back with Split, a terrifying thriller that starts with hysteria and builds from there, ending with the film’s big surprise: a large wink at movie-goers who might have been wondering what he is really up to. Split will frighten you, but it’s so jam-packed full of stuff — theories about dissociative identity disorder, creepy underground hallways that creak with atonal sound design, screaming schoolgirls, childhood abuse, narrow escapes, a psychiatrist who seems as loony as her patients, a monster that enters the film in the third act to upset all that had gone before — that it’s hard to really appreciate it for whatever it is.
And that’s not mentioning the generous cast of villains; 23 of them, all inside the body of Kevin (the powerful James McAvoy), whose multiple personalities take their turns in “the light,” as Kevin and the gang put it. None of them is welcoming, nor is the news that a 24th personality is on the way and we all know what that means: Kevin will be able to play a game of Canadian football with himself.
Actually, he has darker ideas in mind. We meet him in the persona of Dennis, a obsessive-compulsive neat freak who kidnaps three teenaged girls and imprisons them in a windowless room with — nonetheless — a nice en suite washroom complete with fresh flowers. Two of the girls, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and properly frantic, but the third, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the school outsider, is calmly watchful. If there’s a way out of this, you figure Casey is going to be the one to find it.
On the second day of imprisonment, the girls hear Dennis arguing in the hall with a woman, Miss Patricia. She enters the room to be revealed as Dennis in a dress, just like Anthony Perkins in Psycho but with bigger muscles. She says she’s talked to Dennis and reminded him that he can’t harm the girls. Soon, other personae reveal themselves, including Hedwig, a nine-year-old with a lisp and a fondness for the phrase “et cetera.” If he’s in charge for a while, maybe Casey can persuade him to help them escape, but hurry, because Dennis is somewhere in there as well.
So is Barry, a prissy fashion designer and the presumptive presiding personality, who pays weekly visits to Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a therapist who is our guide into the world of multiple personalities. “Nobody ever believes that we exist,” Barry says, but Dr. Fletcher does. Indeed, she’s an expert who explains that people with a host of others living within them — a “horde,” as the movie puts it — can take on physical characteristics of their personalities. Thus, one can have high cholesterol and another can be allergic to bee stings, and the others will remain unaffected.
This quirk, if it’s true, becomes licence for Shyamalan to turn Split from a psychological drama — Psycho times 12, as it were — into a monster picture that’s far less interesting.
Just to muddy the waters further, Shyamalan cuts from the claustrophobic cellar — the actual location of Dennis’s prison is another of the movie’s secrets — to flashbacks of Casey as a little girl learning to hunt deer with her father and uncle. That story, which seems like it should have been a movie of its own, has a tenuous connection to everything else.
It’s all too much, despite a bravura performance by McAvoy, who sinks his teeth into the rich and unusual opportunity to portray so many unhinged villains. Like him, Shyamalan, borrowing like mad from Hitchcock, seems to be having a ball. You just wish the same care had been taken with the story. Early reviews herald this as his return to form. Personally, I see dead people.
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