Review: ‘Split’ (Shyamalan Goes Two for Two)

Few with Dissociative Identity Disorder are actually a menace to anyone but themselves — making this is a misdiagnosis of the worst kind.

Kevin (James McAvoy) has twenty-three separate identities, a condition being monitored by Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She has observed a peculiarity in this particular patient: physical changes that mirror the personality, as if the alter currently in control remakes the host body with different strengths and weaknesses. While attempting to convince an international consortium of her findings and the possible implications, one of the personalities named Dennis abducts three young women (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy) and confines them to a secret location — offerings chosen to appease an emerging twenty-fourth personality known only as The Beast.

Trailers feature three pretty young ladies, a nightmarish kidnapping, and a hint at the myriad characters James McAvoy brings to life on the big screen. We know something bad is going to happen, and in typical Shyamalan fashion, we’re left twisting in the wind with wonder as he stacks clue after clue in front of us. Fresh off a surprise return to form with 2015’s The Visit, M. Night’s directorial street value has begun to rise, so the anticipation for this midwinter follow-up is high. Was The Visit a lucky fluke, or has the prince of twist-endings figured out a new formula to keep audiences engaged and still surprise them again all at the same time?

Whatever your expectations for Split, there’s plenty to talk about after seeing it… especially contained within the all-important denouement. Like all Shymalan flicks, the cast is exemplary — you’d swear the director sticks himself in as a throwaway character each time just to point out how good his casting is. McAvoy doesn’t merely dress up in clothes and put on an accent for each personality; he embodies each character from facial tics to physical movement and eventually shows us switching from persona to persona within moments, a trick that invites comparisons to Tatiana Maslany’s capabilities in “Orphan Black” when she plays one clone imitating another in spite of playing all of them. With McAvoy brining his A-game, everyone else needed to step up in a big way, especially as he transforms throughout the story — Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin in The Witch) met that challenge head-on as one of the “chosen” girls.

All said, there are two significant controversersies surrounding the final product. The lesser one deals with the victims themselves, punished at various points by giving over articles of clothing until they’re barely left in their underwear. Gratuitous? Unfortunately, although not in the reportedly “empowering” way Zack Snyder did in Sucker Punch. There is a plot point to be made that appears to use gratuity as a misdirection, and it lends itself to a key reveal late in the film. The second and more difficult issue is the portrayal of DID: Dissociative Identity Disorder, popularly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. While reports persist that Shyamalan made efforts to get the facts right, he was still angling for a thriller, and a core component of that can be explained away as supernatural; it’s pretty clear the film detours from DID and reaches out into science fiction. When the final confrontation occurs, both of these elements — and accepting them — become essential to resolving the storyline.

Maintaining a small budget yet high standards, the final product is a worthy successor to previous acclaimed Shyamalan films, particularly the underrated Unbreakable. If you remember M. Night’s work prior to The Happening and wished for a return to the kind of cerebral thrillers that the world was introduced to through his efforts, you’re in for a treat.

Split is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, some language, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

4 Skull Recommendation Out of Four

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