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SPLIT – Divide and Conquer

Split.review

Directed by M Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anna Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson

6.5 /10

At one stage Hollywood’s golden boy at suspense, M Night Shyamalan’s career certainly fell off a cliff with a string of critically lambasted big budget failures. However 2015 marked an upwards spike in his work, with the tight and comedic thriller The Visit. Was this indicative of a return to form, or merely an aberration?

Split tells the story of three school girls kidnapped by a terrifying assailant. Locked away in specially prepared cells they soon discover that their captor Denis, is merely one of the 24 personalities inhabiting the body of Kevin (James McAvoy). Hence the kidnapped Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy) is pitched in a battle of wits with all of Kevin’s personalities in an attempt to escape captivity before his final identity emerges – that of the dreaded Beast.

There’s a bit to unpack here, and Split is a little patchy because of it. It’s certainly on shaky grounds when it comes to dealing with issues of mental health and sexual predation. Here it’s pitch is lurid and exploitative to the level of 70s grindhouse, or an 80s video nasty. As far as the issue of Dissociative Identity Disorder goes it skirts this by having an almost comic book approach to the subject, with DID giving a supernatural adaptiveness to Kevin’s body. It’s so far beyond the realm of actual clinical diagnosis as to be ludicrous, and any scientific discussion is purely smoke and mirrors (although kudos to actress Betty Buckley’s attempts to sell it). On it’s treatment of young women, it is bordering on salacious, but it does tie this back into the film’s conclusion, making it seem a necessary plot point. It’s arguable if this is enough, and I suspect opinions will vary greatly on the subject.

However there is also a lot of good here. Even with those concerns, when it comes to creating tension and atmosphere, Shyamalan is a master at the craft. He seems to thrive in the small budget environment that Blumhouse gives him, releasing genre flicks that match perfectly with the label. Here McAvoy also adds to the tension, with an over the top performance pulling out all stops. It’s not exactly a study in subtlety, but rather just opening up the actor’s toolbox and having a bit of a play. The results range from comedic to terrifying, and lend an unpredictability to the proceedings. The Witch‘s Anna Taylor-Joy rounds out the main cast as the terrified and desperately calculating Casey, as she uses every means at her disposal to try and escape her kidnapper.

Then of course there is also the trademark twist, something that has come to mark M. Night’s films, for both good and ill. This is certainly a curious one, not only for how it changes your perspective, but also for what it could mean going forward.

Ultimately a solid piece of genre theater, that bodes well for collaborations between the Blumhouse and Shyamalan to follow.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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