With a breakthrough performance from award-winning actor James McAvoy and an intriguing and often touching story from M. Night Shyamalan, ‘Split’ looks like it’s going to be one of 2017’s finest films.
Following its official release on January 20th, ‘Split’ has grossed over $145 million worldwide; and it’s only three weeks in. Starring James McAvoy as the lead character, Anya Taylor-Joy as our heroine, and Betty Buckley as the experienced therapist; my current favourite film follows the disturbing story of a man with 23 different personalities, who kidnaps three girls. Although deemed a ‘psychological horror’, I felt it was more of a thriller, which I much prefer. Thankfully there were no ill-timed jumpscares, Psycho-esque musical scores or generally cringe-worthy victims. As a fan of psychological thrillers and psychology in general, I was immediately intrigued by this film when I saw the trailer before Christmas, and it certainly did not disappoint when I watched it two months later.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, this is actually the first of his films I have seen. I know, where have I been for the past 15+ years, right? I haven’t even seen The Sixth Sense. Shame on me. However, Shyamalan has teamed up with Jason Blum for this film, who I am a huge fan of. Blumhouse Productions have been involved with so many great horrors over the past 10 years, with Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister and The Purge being my top favourites. Throughout ‘Split’ I noticed a few things which reminded me of some of Jason Blum’s finest work; from the camera angles focusing on our main characters, to the horrible death of Dr Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. With occasional links to the stigma surrounding mental health in today’s society, ‘Split’ is an oh-so-satisfyingly twisted and extreme portrayal of DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder).
Our story begins with a party, possibly a sweet 16th for one of our supporting characters, and here is where we first meet our heroine, Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Casey is shown as being an outcast; she keeps to herself and doesn’t join in with the celebrations, her mind clearly elsewhere. She gets a ride home with the birthday girl and her best friend, which results in our lead character, Kevin (who at this point is ‘Dennis’, one of the 23 personalities), drugging and kidnapping all three girls. The girls wake up in a small, yet clean and surprisingly humane room equipped with beds and even an en-suite (of sorts). From this point onwards, they meet just a few of the 23 personalities. Dennis; a demanding man with OCD who apparently likes to watch girls dance, Patricia; a religious woman, possibly a nun, who likes to walk the girls in shame whilst reciting poems from sympathy cards, and Hedwig; a 9-year-old boy who loves rap music and to start with, appears to have the most power among the personalities. It is revealed throughout the film that the girls are ‘sacred food’ for ‘the Beast’, who appears to be some kind of supernatural being imagined by the personalities. It turns out to be the 24th personality living inside Kevin’s mind and is a manifestation of a variety of animals.
There are key points in the film where James McAvoy’s acting is second-to-none. In the beginning where he goes from acting as ‘Dennis’ to ‘Patricia’, not only do we see this change in his costume, but in his facial expressions, body language and mannerisms, which by the way, he has down to a T for all the personalities we see. Later on when we see McAvoy acting as ‘Barry’, a gay fashionista, while he is in a therapy session with Dr Fletcher, we seem him slowly change from ‘Barry’ back to ‘Dennis’, again through McAvoy’s incredible and carefully timed use of facial expressions and emotions. Even his breathing pattern is different for each personality! But my favourite has to be towards the end when we first see Kevin as himself. Kevin, feeling depressed and confused pleads with Casey to kill him with his shotgun, causing his other personalities to come forward and stop her. In the space of five minutes, McAvoy switches between each character effortlessly, yet clearly, which shows the audience how extremely different each of the personalities are.
Despite our main character with a huge personality, we wouldn’t have our story without the three girls. Casey and her other kidnap-ees , Claire and Marcia are very different. From the onset, Claire is shown as being the smart one, by expressing how they should attack Kevin and escape, which I greatly admired in this film as many horror/thriller films involve frightened-out-of-their-minds victims who just cry throughout the entire film. Well, I did think that until people started getting killed… Anyway, Casey is clearly the smart one here, as she focuses more on asking the different personalities questions, finding out information and using hunter-style skills to make her way out alive; which we discover is because of her hunting background with her dad and uncle. Fantastic acting from Taylor-Joy especially when she is working alongside McAvoy. When he acts as Hedwig, the pair develop a certain chemistry and begin to trust each other, giving the audience a small glimmer of hope that she might make it out with his help, but unfortunately this is to no avail. As the film goes on we find out more about Casey, with her frequent flashbacks to her childhood. As I watched ‘Split’ for the second time, I guessed that how she felt in that isolating and degrading situation was possibly similar to the feelings she had during her childhood, especially when it was revealed that she had been abused by her uncle. There are moments where she is alone, she is crying, frightened, and all we hear is the dull ache of the musical score, combined with the thoughtfully placed camera angles which focus solely on her, emphasising the reality and rawness of Casey’s emotions.
There’s so much more I could talk about with Split, but I don’t want rambling to become my forte. I just wanted to briefly talk about the ending of the movie (again, spoiler warning). As I mentioned, this was the first film I had seen by M. Night Shyamalan. I’d never even heard of his movie Unbreakable until now, after an evening of research. At the end of the film, Kevin escapes as ‘the Beast’, and news reporters give him the name ‘The Horde’ which is what the main personalities called themselves. In a diner, a woman says “this is like that guy in a wheelchair they locked up 15 years ago, what was his name?”. Low and behold, Bruce frigging Willis is sitting next to her and says, “Mr. Glass”. Now, picture me, in the cinema, watching this for the first time not knowing about Unbreakable or the story of Unbreakable, and suddenly Bruce Willis, renowned and incredible actor, Bruce Willis, appears in a CAMEO role. I’m sat there thinking “WHAT?! That’s Bruce Willis! In a cameo! What is he doing there? That must mean something?!” And clearly it does. It means I have to watch Unbreakable for the first time and expect a third film to be released within the next four years.