Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan | 117 minutes | horror, thriller | Actors: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley, Neal Huff, Jessica Sula
It wasn’t that long ago that the career of Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan had come to a screeching halt. His debut film ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1998) made an impressive entrance into Hollywood, but every film he made was one step short of its predecessor, with the tentative lows being ‘The Last Airbender’ (2010) and ‘After Earth’ (2013). But Shyamalan doesn’t give up and keeps trying. And with the low-budget thriller ‘The Visit’ (2015) he actually made a kind of comeback, although there was still plenty to criticize about that film. With the psychological thriller ‘Split’ (2016), about a man with twenty-three different personalities – and a twenty-fourth on the way – Shyamalan takes another step in the right direction.
A group of teenage girls are having a party in a bar. Three of them, including year-old Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and eccentric Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), are picked up by Claire’s father (Neal Huff). As the girls get into the car, something strange happens behind the car. Claire’s father is attacked, but the girls are unaware. Not long after, a strange man gets into the car and before they can say anything, the girls are drugged. When they wake up, they are in a basement. The man who took them (James McAvoy) visits them regularly, but every time it seems like someone else is standing in front of them; one minute the calculating and neurotic Dennis, the next the nine-year-old Hedwig, and the next the aloof Miss Patricia. Kevin, as the man is really called, turns out to have a dissociative personality disorder (popularly known as split personality). Of his twenty-three personalities, Dennis, Hedwig and Miss Patricia are the most dominant and they also firmly believe in ‘The Beast’, a hidden and deadly twenty-fourth ‘alter’ who is a danger to everyone in Kevin’s environment.
With his film, M. Night Shyamalan wants to develop a hypothesis: if one personality is much stronger than the others, what does that mean for the capabilities of the human brain? The theory is explained in the film by psychotherapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is fascinated by Kevin and his many faces. People who are ‘damaged by life’, according to Shyamalan’s theorem, are better able to control these personalities because they are more ‘advanced’. The tragedy-scarred Casey therefore approaches her kidnapper much more rationally than Claire and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who try to find an exit like a headless chicken. Through her own past, she knows how to manipulate Kevin’s personalities – or at least one of them.
Shyamalan plays with clichés (hadn’t had to) and at other times sprinkles with technical terms from psychology; it seems as if the director/screenwriter/producer (who also plays a small part, as we are used to from him) doesn’t really know how seriously he wants to take his own film. The concept described earlier is touched upon, but more could have been done with it. Fortunately, Shyamalan has managed to get James McAvoy for the lead role. The sympathetic Scotsman is impressive and knows how to portray a different character with just his voice, body language and glance. In the beginning he also changes clothes, but as the film progresses the characters merge more and more and it is no longer necessary to change clothes to show which ‘alter’ is now ‘in the light’ again. Both mentally and physically this is a role that demands a lot from an actor and McAvoy pulls out all the stops to show what he has to offer. Tribute!
Shyamalan could have – and should have gone in depth with ‘Split’! – go and have to draw a line in tone. But thanks to a fantastic, eight-fold (he doesn’t play all twenty-four unfortunately…) role by James McAvoy and a solid build-up of tension, he manages to keep the viewer’s attention for two hours. And that’s a huge improvement over ‘The Last Airbender’ and ‘After Earth’. M. Night Shyamalan, the child prodigy of yesteryear, actually seems to be back on the road again!