This Is What the Edge of the Seat Was Made For
By Ryan Lewis Nair
When I initially saw the trailer for M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller Split, I thought that the American director (The Visit, The Village, Unbreakable) had simply concocted another hostage-themed flick with albeit, an intriguing twist. After having seen the pseudo-horror, how wrong I was. Split, arguably the best film of 2017 thus far, adapts one of psychology’s most fascinating disorders, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and delves deep into the nitty gritty of the illness, and the devastating effect it has on an individual.
Led phenomenally by James McAvoy (Trance, Filth and Wanted), Split explores the concept of a man, Kevin, who has twenty-three separate, distinct personalities, unique in nature, gender and even age. Having kidnapped three girls and now keeping them hostage in an undisclosed location, the captives must utilise Kevin’s personalities to escape. With talk of one of his personalities, ‘The Beast’ being ‘on the move’, there is also the pressure of a time scale to the film which makes the tone increasingly tense and adds a sense of impending doom. Constructed cleverly with regular scenes centred around Kevin’s therapy sessions (in which he acts under the guise ‘Barry’ – an artist and another personality), the audience gain an authentic insight into how DID manifests itself, the interconnectedness between personalities, and the underlying damage done to the host.
In a nutshell (spoilers ahead), Kevin has developed twenty-three personalities with certain ones – Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig – taking what is called in the film, ‘the light’ (Kevin’s primary consciousness) more often than others. Marvellously played by James McAvoy, the actor should be up for an Oscar after this performance as his transformations are astounding. Switching from an OCD sex offender, to a psychopathic mother figure, to a deluded child of nine in a matter of minutes, is unrivalled talent. Critically what it displays is McAvoy’s underrated ability as an actor and marvels the likes of Tom Hardy’s Legend, in which the A-lister similarly plays two personalities at once.
As the story progresses, we learn of Dr Fletcher’s risky obsession with DID and her view of the defect as a benefit (almost like a superpower) rather than an illness which needs to be treated. Leaning more into the realm of the supernatural (archetypal M. Night Shyamalan), the film does have its deviations from reality, but what do you expect from a psychological thriller? Regardless of the film straying somewhat from its own scientific basis -especially towards the end when ‘The Beast’ is revealed to be effectively a super-human, feral and cannibalistic man-monster – the film is truly edge of your seat cinema.
Buried beneath the main story of Kevin and his DID is another intricate tale which I found particularly moving in light of the events of the film. One of the female captives, Casey, played by actress Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch), is revealed in a series of flashbacks as abused by her uncle. Similar to Kevin, the notion of abuse is detrimental to Casey’s life as she is singled out as an outsider immediately from the film’s opening. Throughout the film, Casey notably remains on the peripheries of the other girls’ naïve plans to escape and is the lone survivor by the horrific conclusion. Understanding Kevin’s trauma as an abuse victim, she becomes the heroine of the story and almost saves the antagonist from himself. In one particular scene, Casey utters Kevin’s full name and momentarily we see the real Kevin (realising the horrors he has committed) beg for Casey to kill him before his malevolent personalities set in again. Thinking that the end is nigh, one breathes a huge sigh of relief, but Kevin then glitches sporadically between multiple personalities, suppressing his natural self indefinitely. In the end, The Beast chooses not to harm Casey and leaves because she too, like Kevin, was abused but has survived, meaning she is inherently stronger for it. Casey is eventually found by the police in an abandoned zoo (where Kevin used to work) and it is inferred she chooses to confront her own demons when the police say her sole guardian, her uncle, has arrived to take care of her.
Ultimately, Split possesses the flashiness of a horror and too has its anxiety-inducing moments, but intelligently woven between the surface fabric is the taboo of mental health and abuse. Concluding the film with Casey’s redemption is arguably Shyamalan’s genius at its finest and a powerful moment for modern cinema. Elsewhere, hinting at a sequel-crossover film with both McAvoy’s role and Bruce Willis’ from Unbreakable, is an intriguing proposition, and one we will have to watch out for.
Rating – 4.5/5
Ryan Lewis Nair
Featured image courtesy of Universal Pictures