With Hollywood flops like The Last Airbender and After Earth under his belt, M. Night Shyamalan‘s prowess as a master in psychological thrillers has long been forgotten. That is, until the ground-breaking film, Split, a recently released psychological thriller starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, hit cinemas this February.
Split sees Shyamalan’s return to suspenseful, dark and twisted plots, thought-provoking concepts and extraordinary characters. The film follows the character of Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy), a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (“DID”) (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder), with 23 distinct and unique personalities living inside him.
Acting as the personality ‘Dennis’, Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls for unknown reasons and holds them captive in an unknown location. Terrified for their lives, the girls devise numerous escape plans and in turn, come face to face with number of Kevin’s other personalities, including ‘Patricia’ and nine year old ‘Hedwig’.
The plot is undoubtedly thrilling, with viewers left with no clues whatsoever as to where the film is headed. Each moment comes as a complete surprise, especially with regard to which personality we’ll be greeted with. This element of surprise and suspense keeps viewers on the edge of their seat.
Shyamalan doesn’t shy away from illustrating the two sides of thinking when it comes to DID, with one line of thought being, that those who suffer from DID are ‘sick’ and require treatment. The other, expressed by Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley), who aims to educate the medical community about the condition, is the hypothesis that DID could be a form of human evolution; that is, the unlocking of the full potential of the brain. “Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” she asks.
In this way, the film explores the idea that what has been classified as mental illness could potentially be so much more. Even today, mental illness is stigmatised and spoken about negatively. Split, encourages us to look beyond, to consider the possibility of potential behind imbalances in brain chemistry. In many ways, this notion calls for a change in how we perceive those who ‘suffer’ from chemical imbalances in the brain and details that further studies are required.
James McAvoy’s performance, portraying a number of different personalities, is beyond brilliant. His ability to swap between ‘characters’ and pull each off convincingly is a feat in itself and a delight to watch on screen. Despite Dr. Fletcher’s attempts to help Kevin and convince us, the viewers, to see him as simply needing guidance, the terrifying manner in which Kevin’s 24th personality develops makes it difficult for us to sympathise with Kevin. Instead, we feel for the kidnapped girls and even more so for Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) as clues are slowly given about her background, which we later learn is of some importance.
For many Shyamalan fans, Split acts as a spiritual successor to the director’s 2000 hit, Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. In essence, Split puts forward the thought that Shyamalan is looking to build on the concept of ordinary people with superhuman abilities and there are already some talks about a Split sequel. Regardless, the film’s dark tones sets up the requirement for a hero to balance the darkness with light.
Despite having a rather chilling story, the way in which the film ultimately ended left much to be desired. With such a spine-tingling set up, I expected more of a twist ending or at least some sort of brilliant fight scene between Casey and the beast (Kevin’s 24th personality). Instead, the ending, to me personally, fell flat. Had I watched Unbreakable prior to Split, perhaps my opinion would be different.
Nevertheless, Split‘s focus on mental illnesses and the various forms of thought surrounding such issues, is an aspect of the film that I enjoyed thoroughly. With such a profound performance by McAvoy, it’s impossible not to have enjoyed the film, even for those who are not Shyamalan fans. A thrilling, thought-provoking tale, Split comes highly recommended.