Sunday 5 April 2020

Movie Review: Split (2016)

A psychological suspense thriller, Split combines to good effect a disturbing story of dissociative identity disorder with a girls-in-captivity drama.

Teenage friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and their blacksheep classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy), a troubled man with 23 distinct personalities. The girls are held in the windowless basement of an unknown building, and are gradually introduced to Kevin's various identities, including the obsessive compulsive Dennis, the prim and proper Patricia, and the childlike Hedwig.

The girls try various tricks to escape, while in flashback Casey recalls her dark childhood experiences being taught to hunt deer by her father and uncle. Another of Kevin's personalities is the artist Barry, and he frequently visits psychologist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) apparently seeking help but unable to articulate his latest crisis. A bad situation threatens to get worse when Hedwig warns the captive teens that The Beast, a destructive 24th personality, is about to come forth.

Split splits its time telling three satisfying stories, as director and writer M. Night Shyamalan weaves together elements from the past and present. The abduction and captivity is the centrepiece, and although fairly traditional in premise and execution, the strained dynamics between the duo of Claire and Marcia and Casey's darker disposition introduce intriguing texture. Shyamalan makes excellent use of the subterranean maze where the girls are being held, a dank and forgotten basement filled with unlabeled doors and endless hallways lined with pipes.

With James McAvoy never less than intimidating in a career defining performance, the sequential emergence of Kevin's various personalities also maintains an edge, although only about five of the 23 are properly introduced

The second parallel story is Kevin (with Barry presenting) interacting with psychologist Karen. She has a deep understanding of what and who she is dealing with, and doggedly probes Kevin's dense psyche to try and understand why he is reaching out for help. Karen's quest is not made easier by the broader psychology community's general skepticism about the reality of DID.

And finally, and in some ways most absorbing, are the flashbacks to Casey's childhood. Here Shyamalan gradually builds to horrors awaiting a young girl, starting with an innocuous introduction to wildlife hunting as a core life skill and ending with lifelong trauma.

Shyamalan builds enough material towards a powerful final act, but decides to undo some of his own good work. The director with an insatiable penchant for twists decides to steer Split towards a different final dimension, and the climax is a relative disappointment compared to the build-up, the suspense and human psychology elements left in a crumpled heap in favour of a late-arriving novelty theme.

But before the splits widen to cracks, Split offers a provocatively multi-faceted experience.

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