If the purpose of going to the cinema is just to enjoy oneself, let alone be completely stunned—slammed against your seat, like all of the mostly “urban” youths I saw this with in the sanctuary city of all sanctuary cities in the renegade state of California, then Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest exhibit in his career renaissance, is certainly going to be one of the films of the year. It is that alone for the simply monstrous performance by James McAvoy, the talented and expressive Scottish actor who made his breakthrough here upstaging Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and who’s gone on to digital Hollywood serial exposure and fame. In a consummate performance that would earn him an Oscar nomination for sheer audacity and brilliant execution if horror-thrillers were given any consideration, McAvoy twists and contorts all of that facial expressiveness and beyond to the requirements of playing a handful of the multiple personalities of one Kevin, the host of a “horde” of characters who come to fruition under the methodological term now known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID.
Among these colorful players, who materialize much to the amazement of the three girls—mean girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen); second-fiddle beauty Marcia (Jessica Sula); and deeply isolated, nearly mute social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, Morgan, Barry)—who are precipitously abducted from a shopping center parking lot in a brazen daylight action very early on, within the stark industrial confines of a makeshift home that was not properly zoned by the city, are Dennis, the brazen, bespectacled, big-brother kidnapper who’s gained the upper hand on Kevin himself; Miss Patricia, a matronly, upper-crust caregiver dressed like a new-age Scottish bagpipe player whose exceptional breeding barely masks a sinister Dickensian inner channel; and Hedwig, a young adult with the mental and behavioral capacity of an adolescent who flirts with the distressed girls and fancies petty and more actual rebellions against Dennis and the Misses so long as he can get away with them. A fourth, the OCD fashion designer and primary interloper Barry, tries to warn Kevin’s psychiatrist, the nearly professionally exiled Dr. Fletcher (a perfectly cast Betty Buckley), of the startling goings-on, but is beating to the punch by Dennis, whose tête-à-tête with the caring, concerned, but implicitly intuitive therapist is worth the price of admission alone. D. can barely keep the lid on the basis of all the uproar—the imminent materialization of a new character known as The Beast, whose depiction in Hedwig’s childlike drawings is ominously, monstrously inhuman.
The late realization of the setting of Kevin’s twisted domicile tips Shyamalan’s hand to the latter of the nature versus nurture debate, and allusions to The Beast’s proclivity for flesh betrays cannibalism for a more animalistic hunger; hence, the girls abduction as “unpure” sacrificial lambs. It’s Nietzsche and Dostoevsky run amok. The true basis for Kevin’s diagnosis, of course, is extreme childhood trauma—could it be anything else?—trauma that is also mirrored in Casey—whose backstory is intercut in some inspired editing by Luke Ciarrocchi, who also edited Shyamalan’s previous, The Visit, and who cut his teeth as an assistant on the director’s The Happening—which allows her to instinctively alight to and even empathize with Kevin’s motivations, as if she had seen the X-Files episode, Unruhe, and was following Agent Scully’s rational lament, “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them…” (Taylor-Joy and the other young actresses are all excellent.)
Monsters? One of the original in the Western canon is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a multilayered metaphor for all sorts of personal, social, and political demons at the monstrous time, and certainly evoked here with the emergence of The Beast, a necessitated, perhaps, materialization of all sorts of similar forces hence, like neofascist and neocommunist uprisings from Germany—foreshadowed cinematically in brilliant recent films by Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) and Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader)—to North Korea to Cambodia to Cuba, not to mention the turbulent formation and realized nuclear ambitions of Pakistan, carved out of the writer-director-producer’s own native land. Shyamalan’s smart script must be aware of this; before making Split, he had just formulated much of Fox’s rather excellent dystopian sci-fi social satire, Wayward Pines.
Still, Shyamalan has childlike tendencies himself, and here, he’s like a kid in a candy store. The departure for Split is certainly the schizophrenic horror genre and a more tasteful modification of the more recent torture-horror films—Claire’s white sweater is dispensed with early, under a pretext, of course, and the distressed Richardson spends much of the film in undergarments. Detractors may point to a few liberal and derivative indulgences toward the end as material evidence of a misfire, but what would otherwise exasperate myself in a lesser film are merely a few pardonable missteps here. Indeed, Split nearly rises to the level of a Halloween, one of the more excellent of the schizophrenic offerings, especially in Buckley’s exceeding performance, which evokes Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis. Her heartbreaking reaction in her office to the realization that Dennis has, in fact, overcome Barry, the brief interlocution of Kevin himself in a pivotal moment, and the empathetic flashbacks to Kevin’s and Casey’s childhoods all contribute to this being no mere horror knockoff or exploitation flick.
As we just saw Monday night on A&E’s Bates Motel, when Freddie Highmore’s Norman Bates is condemned with having the same dreadful condition, which presupposes madness, he replies quite calmly and directly, though with a hint of preparatory schoolboy agitation, that all of us, after all, have multiple personalities, depending upon the social situation and particular player(s) involved. In the hands of Shyamalan’s gritty and penetrating script, Split is a transformative piece that calls into question the nature of identity itself, not only for the abnormally developed, but for all of us who may believe we are normal, and whose close adherence to a civilized routine has pronounced us definitely as anything but. All good cinema is transformative, altering your reality and view of yourself and the world around you, and Split certainly qualifies, not that anyone will leave a viewing inquiring too closely, ‘less they go mad. It’s a bit of a dilemma, one’s unexamined mind, and nowadays, in these modern-primitive times, it may be best to just leave it alone. After all, Freud already did that, and his findings were none too comforting.
(Be completely stunned—be slammed against your living room seat; Split is now available with extras, including an alternate ending and deleted scenes, on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Download from Universal Studios Home Entertainment!)
© 2017 John Tyler/24 Hours