SPLIT. Starring: James McAvoy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language). 117 min.
This American horror-thriller drama focuses on a man diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), who has 23 different, warring personalities. He kidnaps three girls and imprisons them.
The 23 personalities all belong to Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a victim of child abuse. The personalities include "Dennis" who kidnaps the girls returning from a school birthday party - Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), herself a victim of abuse, and locks them away in his underground cellar. The dominant personality presents as "Barry", a likeable fashion designer, who asks for a meeting with Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but there is a clash going on for domination among the personalities. Especially involved in the clash are compulsive "Dennis", menacing "Patricia", young "Hedwig", and "The Beast". The nastiest of the personalities is "The Beast" (a 24th. personality?), who delivers a terrible end to Claire and Marcia (who he thinks have "never really suffered"), and Dr. Fletcher.
The film spends most of its time tracking the attempts by the hapless girls, in various stages of requested undress, to escape the clutches of the personalities that inhabit Kevin's body. Which ones will permit escape, and which not, and can their warring be manipulated? The film interestingly winds to a conclusion that says the viewer needs to reframe what was seen before.
As with most films about multiple personality, the race is on before the personalities merge to a final one, that may, or may not be, the worst of them all. Distinct from the compelling "Three faces of Eve" (1957), this film has not 3, but 23 (or 24) chances to do that. Hitchcock's s thriller, "Psycho" (1960), had just two. Shyamalan is very much influenced by Hitchcock's style of direction.
The movie's title indicates up front that Kevin has a genuine multiple personality disorder caused by dissociative splits in consciousness. It prejudges that real dissociation is occurring, and we are not seeing a condition that is a pathological response to suggestion delivered by a therapist, as could be the case. The film tempts us with the notion that maybe Dr. Fletcher "chose" the people she believed in ("they are people we're not", she says), but it is not a movie to be assessed in terms of clinical truth. Rather, it has been made to demonstrate the capacity for multiple personalities to look entertainingly convincing and to express potential for delivering horror. James McAvoy plays his diverse roles very impressively. He changes effortlessly from one character to another, across gender, age, and dress. Each personality looks and behaves differently from the others, and arouses a different reaction that cumulatively sets the stage for evil to manifest itself, which it does. McAvoy does a terrific job of making an unbelievable character, almost credible.
The movie aims for tension and dramatically achieves it, more so for some personalities, like "Dennis", than for others, like "The Beast". Emergence of the different personalities is not always convincing, but Shyamalan structures his surprises chillingly. There are too many personalities, however, for the movie to focus meaningfully on the serious themes it raises: the stigma of mental illness, the meaning of real suffering and abuse, and what it is like to become a victim. Basically, the movie is a well-directed psychological fantasy thriller about abuse. Its clinical interpretations are loose, but it maintains an effective tone of mystery throughout, and like other good supernatural-horror movies, it uses threatening close-ups to nicely heighten its tension.
This is a movie that is a regular bonanza for an intrepid actor or actress, and Director alike. It does not achieve the brilliance of "The Sixth Sense" (1999), but Shyamalan directs this latest film of his, cleverly and smartly, and he does so with a menacing style that keeps the viewer totally absorbed.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Universal Pictures International