Three teenagers are abducted by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). The girls wake up in a locked room with no idea as to why he has taken them. They soon realize that the man has dissociative identity disorder, and that it was actually “Dennis” who kidnapped them. Together with “Patricia”, the two hostile selves have taken over the host body and keep on conversing about feeding the “Beast”. Impatience leads to Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) being kept in solitary confinement, leaving Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) to figure out a way to escape on her own. She befriends “Hedwig”, the nine-year old kid who surfaces from time to time to play with her, believing that she can convince him to set them free. Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is trying to persuade the medical community to support her breakthrough hypothesis on DID, but they find it hard to believe given the paranormal slant of her theory, until she learns herself that she might be on the right track all along. Will she make it in time to save the three innocent teens that her most complex patient, hosting 23 distinct identities, has captured?
There have been several films focusing on either DID or MPD in the last few decades, but they rarely make it to anyone’s favorite list. The last good one I recall was Identity, which came in the guise of a suspense thriller. It was a good slasher flick, but that’s the issue right there. The MPD aspect took the backseat and did no favors in shining some light on the matter. Some even argue that it further reinforces the stigma. In the case of Split, we know outright from the trailers that this is a character with DID. Yet, the problem remains the same. The attention of the screenplay is divided between the psychological side and the supernatural facet of it all, this being an M. Night Shyamalan flick.
There’s nothing wrong with it. He’s all about twists after all. It just feels as though the mental disorder was just utilized for its novelty factor, a means to an end. When the final act is unraveled, all that is thrown out of the window in favor of the paranormal plot twist. In the end, you’ll still probably have the same notion that people who suffer from this mental disorder are violent by default. And that is rather unfortunate. But then again, this is not a documentary. It’s just that DID patients always tend to be put in a bad light.
As for James McAvoy’s acting, it comes off as a bit calculated. We can distinguish one self from another alright thanks to the layered nuances but somehow it feels rehearsed. Technical even, to some extent. Nonetheless, you can tell that he was having fun breathing life into those characters. A dual role is usually the acid test in proving an actor’s versatility. Imagine having to dabble in half a dozen different ones in a single film. That scene at the end where he shifts from one to another and to another in a span of less than two minutes can be considered as his tour de force, although everything becomes quite anti-climactic after revealing the paranormal plot twist. Richardson and Sula are okay as the requisite damsels in distress. Taylor-Joy as the hero could have worked, if her fragmented and incoherent backstory meshed well with the main storyline. It does so, but not in a very convincing way.
One underlying theme is that of interchangeable position between the predator and the prey, as presented in the disjointed montage of Claire’s backstory. She starts off as the hunted, only to evolve as the hunter. In the end, though, the resolution of her personal drama feels unsettled. Or perhaps that was what Shyamalan has been aiming for all this time?
Shyamalan’s movies are hit or miss most of the time. Split seems caught in between. On one hand, you want to love it because the actors involved all do their share in giving you a good cinematic experience. On the other hand, taking an abrupt supernatural turn instead of just expanding the medical aspect in a more convincing manner feels a bit too convenient, like cheating your audience because you suddenly have no idea on how to wrap it all up. The film works more as a psychological thriller, a quiet one which leaves you thinking as to what will happen next and how, as opposed to a violent slasher flick where the adrenaline rush is constant for the entire two-hour run. In a way, it’s that balance that makes this movie tolerable.