M. Night Shyamalan was once a hallowed name within the film industry. Following the raucous successes of Sixth Sense, Signs, and Unbreakable, the director kinda lost his way – shoving sloppy twist after sloppy twist into boring and uninteresting films. After a warm reception to last year’s The Visit, could it be that Shyamalan is back in business?
It certainly feels that way with his latest – Split.
Split revolves around a group of girls who are kidnapped by an unknown man and locked away in his basement. However, they soon discover that their kidnapper is host to 23 different personalities, and one of them is surely sinister.
There has already been a lot of controversy surrounding Split and its portrayal of Dissociative identity disorder (DID.) There is always a degree of exploitation when horror films latch on to a sensitive topic. Rape, abuse, gender identity, and mental illness have been used to excavate villains and torture victims for many years that the characters help audiences attach stigma to every day sufferers. Split does carry on this rhetoric somewhat, especially attaching a monstrous personality to Kevin in order for him to reach full horror potential. For some, this interpretation is offensive and I am not going to minimise how folk with DID or others are interpreting it.
That being said (and will be elaborated on in a further article) I truly believe that if there was any actor who can take on that weight with an unwavering and unquestionable understanding it is James McAvoy. The actor is no stranger for tackling the depth of a broken soul or mind. The Ruling Class production saw him as a paranoid schizophrenic with delusional thoughts, Macbeth allowed McAvoy to enter the depths of a tortured King, and Filth saw his vicious police office dwindling with pressure and bipolar. Each of these performances McAvoy embodied whole-heartedly with an astute empathy that is unwavering always. This is a talent he takes forth with rapturous skill. In initial interviews, it was clear that McAvoy had researched as much as he could and developed the characters with an of each and every persona. Transcending from role to role, McAvoy possesses the screen with a dexterity still unchallenged by his peers. Through each personality, McAvoy lucidly transforms so that a slight facial change or flicker of an eye clues you into the character of that moment. He changes from the bemusing child Hedwig to the stoic and obsessive Denise in simple motions that, once again, prove he is one of the best actors of our generation. A complete tour-de-force.
Anya Taylor-Joy is a young actress who is drive to darker roles and here, with little dialogue, she accomplishes a lot. Showcasing a sorrow and sadness to her character Casey from the beginning, Taylor-Joy unravels her hunter instincts and clear mind within captivity that she becomes much more than the victim here. Strong and fervent whilst being scared and frightened, Taylor-Joy is an outstanding addition here that
Going back to the mental illness aspect of the movie: This is a theme that has resonated in my mind since the screening. Perhaps because of the controversy that was always going to be featured but there is something more about the overall arc of the story that M. Night Shyamalan that deepens from the surface exploits. The element of empathy, as previous mentioned, is a visceral and core-shaking mantra that leaves an indelible impression for those suffering from a disorder. Again, I understand that some may not see it this way, but Split is a meditative exercise on how to, not only psychologically pull out the thrills, but also how to deepen the plot with an affecting backstory and profound It’s the cleverness of Shyamalan’s work – both directing and writing – that transforms this horror piece into a survival piece with clear resonance to classic thriller pieces such as Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, or Carrie where the mind and horror overlap in glorious and ardent ways.
Split is by no means a perfect film: There is a bit of silliness that often downplays the horror and the length of the film could’ve been easily been shaved down to add more tension to the proceedings. Yet Shyamalan has struck an almighty chord with this film that draws out it’s frights and devours your thoughts long after the credits role.