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Much like those of the antagonist of his new film, M. Night Shyamalan’s intentions appear to be somewhat confused. Modern American cinema’s arch-trickster has crafted a sharply-plotted, claustrophobic psycho-horror that struggles against a groaning Gordian Knot of tonal shifts and genre tropes. He is a filmmaker often focussed on the effect of trauma and Split is now exception.
Three young women are kidnapped by Dennis (James McAvoy), an imposing control freak who turns out to be one of twenty-three distinct personas inhabiting the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb. Apart from Dennis, three other characters have hogged most of the crammed mental limelight. Patricia is a creepy, evangelical woman, Hedwig is a vindictive nine year-old boy, and Barry is an amiable fashion designer who presents the friendly face of his condition to his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley).
Shyamalan does a great job of drip-feeding the motivations of Kevin’s legion inhabitants, while allowing Buckley’s psychiatrist to act as a periodic exposition dump, offering us more insight into his condition. A swollen, pulsing vein of abuse is quickly established, linking him thematically with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the de facto leader of the captives, whose own horrific story is presented in queasy flashbacks. Trauma can elevate us appears to be the message. Kevin’s condition is presented as having almost supernatural connotations, while Casey is shown to have incredible depths of resolve and resourcefulness.
Establishing this yin and yang duality adds immeasurably to the film’s tension but is also the biggest problem. By the very nature of McAvoy’s performance, compelling as it is, the tone often teeters over into the realms of the comic. This is particularly true when we’re first introduced to the Patricia character, and it all undermines the tension and seriousness of the theme of abuse. It also does nothing to ameliorate the stigma that is still attached to depictions of mental illness in films like this.
Beyond this, Shyamalan can’t quite help himself but throw in some utterly unnecessary exploitation tropes. Casey as the ‘final girl‘ is a nicely-drawn character, played with real vigour by the hugely impressive Taylor-Joy, who was so tremendous in The Witch last year; but her fellow abductees are thoroughly generic and disposable, and Shyamalan finds reasons to have them stripped to their underwear. It may be a nod to genre convention, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
On the whole though, Split is a genuinely gripping tangle of a film, anchored by an actor having the time of his life. Shyamalan applies his usual twisty narratives, and takes the story to places one wouldn’t expect. It may be too out-there for some, but it certainly isn’t predictable. If you can ignore the borderline reprehensible tropes about mental illness, then this feels very much like a much-maligned auteur beginning to find his feet again.