SPLIT. Starring: James McAvoy. Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula. Written and directed by: M Night Shyamalan. Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis. Distributed by: Universal Pictures. Rating: M. Mature themes, violence and occasional coarse language. Running time: 117 minutes
Split is a tricky film to review. Film criticism is largely a matter of informed taste, which is dependent on what we expect from cinema as both art and entertainment. For guidance on films most moviegoers go to reviewers who seem to reflect their own taste, and this has become increasingly important with the price of cinema tickets on the increase, depending on where you see the film and what genre it belongs to. All these things are relevant to this reviewer’s take on Split.
As spruiked in most advertisements about the film, Split is about a man with 23 different personalities. A variant on the theme of Jekyll and Hyde, it’s a psychological horror movie which takes the viewer inside the mind of a madman.
In a tour-de-force of acting which dominates the storyline and gives it greater credibility and realism than it may otherwise deserve, James McAvoy (The Last King of Scotland, X-Men) plays Kevin Wendell Crumb, who is being treated by a psychiatrist, Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) for dissociative identity disorder.
Kevin is known to his psychiatrist by a number of his multiple personalities, the most dominant being ‘Dennis’, ‘Barry’, ‘Hedwig’ and ‘Patricia’. What Karen doesn’t know, however, is that Kevin has kidnapped three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and is forcibly constraining them in fear and terror in an undisclosed location, seemingly underground.
Claire and Marcia choose to attack ‘Dennis’, but Casey opts for cleverer tactics, which only partially succeed. Just as Kevin is revealed as being the child of an abusive family member, so is Casey, and in the struggle to survive, Casey is the character who opens the door to our understanding of the monster that Kevin has become, not the fascinated but grossly miscalculating psychiatrist Karen.
From this point on, what begins as an engrossing, well-acted psychological thriller, erupts into a horror fantasy, with Freud’s primordial ‘id’ running amok in the world, having been given superhuman powers by its creator (in this case Shyamalan) that reflects the latent volcano that lurks in all of us.
Split is an ambitious project that only partially succeeds. There are glitches in the narrative that may annoy filmgoers who are willing to suspend disbelief but find it difficult, in this instance to sacrifice realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment. And while the tension is entertaining, the merging of psychological realism (as in Psycho for example) with other more popular genres comes unstuck for this reviewer because the necessary narrative cement is missing.
Both during the film and later while digesting the complex story, it’s difficult to make sense of the physical environment in which Kevin holds his victims hostage, or how Karen knows where to find him in the dead of night. Similarly, the girls are imprisoned in what looks like a workplace. It’s hard to imagine they would be invisible to others. A bit like a Tardis, the magnitude of the underground world where Kevin’s victims are brutalised and contained defies the logical world that Shayamalan posits, and to a large degree this cuts the film’s emotional power.
One reason for these missing parts may be the heavy post-production editing of Split which reduced the original running time from three hours to barely two. For M Night Shayamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Valley, Signs), this was done to quicken the film’s pace and emphasise the supernatural elements of his story. Maybe when his planned follow-up to Split and Unbreakable hits the screen, the talented writer-director may see fit to do a Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven) and issue a Director’s Cut.