In M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller “Split,” a man whose mind is populated by 23 different identities (James McAvoy), kidnaps three high school girls and holds them captive in his cellar. After experiencing severe childhood abuse, the man first known as Kevin, has developed dissociative identity disorder. A few of these alter egos, including kidnapper Dennis, a nun named Patricia and a nine-year-old boy called Hedwig, fight for their turn as the film’s protagonist.
Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), are leaving a birthday party when Dennis hops in the driver’s seat instead of their father. While trapped in his underground den, they attempt to outmaneuver Kevin’s identities and turn them against each other, particularly the ones that wish to do them harm. The film also gives us scenes between Kevin and his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), an expert in the field of his disorder and his skeptical supporter. Dr. Fletcher adds a grounded dimension to the story, and provides much of the context for Kevin’s indecipherable mental state.
Does “Split” contribute to the perception that people with serious mental illnesses are dangerous psychopaths? It’s hard to say. There is slight relief in knowing that the film does not attempt to say anything realistic about mental illness at all. In fact, Shyamalan creates a world that feels more like a comic book reality, where anything can happen and the fantastical is never too far away. What begins as a character study evolves into the origin story of a super-villain by its closing scene.
The film builds tension in the dungeon-like compound, but never becomes an outright horror experience. These scenes are rife with psychosexual underpinnings and themes centered on trauma. It is overall more unsettling than scary, and most of the film’s disturbing elements involve the exploitation of its characters and their pasts.
Amidst the creepiness are some genuine laughs, mostly thanks to McAvoy’s portrayals, which are marked by campy changes in body language, voice and wardrobe. The naïve Hedwig can’t help but be funny —like when he invites Casey to his room to see his dance moves, or when after asking to kiss her he declares, “You might be pregnant.” A lesser actor could have upset the balance between humor and menace, but luckily McAvoy’s performance hits the perfect note of melodramatic yet sympathetic. It is what turns an otherwise okay, or even bad movie, into an entertaining one.
The film does not follow an obvious trajectory, and prefers not to decide on one tone or genre. But, some viewers will be content to predict the ending via clues dropped along the way. Shyamalan avoids the usual twist that he is known for, instead choosing to expand on his characters. This makes the conclusion feel unavoidable rather than jarring, enough to make us contextualize what came before, yet unexpected enough to for its message to linger.
“Split” wants to disturb and to even make us laugh, but its mission statement is that broken people have a reservoir of power they carry within them, setting them apart from those who have not suffered. Shyamalan wants his movie to be about victims and the misunderstood, and in an unapologetic and strange way, he succeeds.