Split: Mr Shyamalan back in business

As supernatural thrillers go, this is a pretty good one. It’s the genre you’d expect from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and while he has suffered from the critics in the latter part of his career, one suspects he will have gone quite some distance to redeeming himself here. Split is tense, for most of its journey you’re not sure where it will take you, and there are some genuinely high quality acting performances on display. At the time of writing it had gathered in more than $170 million at the worldwide box office, on a budget of $9 million, so Mr Shyamalan’s backers will be happy. But the key to the film it is that it may not be a supernatural thriller at all, at least if the rationale of the story is to be believed. More on this shortly.  It all hinges on the work of James McAvoy, who undertakes the “split” role of a man with multiple personalities, or Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D). Yes, more on him shortly too.

The set up is that the McAvoy character (variously he’s Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and Barry, among others) has kidnapped three teenage girls. We don’t know where he’s holding them and we certainly don’t know why. The story proceeds through McAvoy’s interactions with the girls and with his counsellor Dr Karen Fletcher. Betty Buckley is superb as the counsellor. She plays the professional struggling to understand what her client is up to, but steadfastly maintaining her game face in an effort to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, the key character in the trio of girls, and she delivers top notch work. She plays the teenager who doesn’t fit in – a common as muck role, I know – but the reasons behind her dislocation from her peers may help her negotiate a relationship with McAvoy. Taylor-Joy will be an actor to watch.

Now to Mr McAvoy. You can see him relishing his role as he moves, sometimes quickly, from personality to personality. Some of the switches are subtle and some dramatic. There are 23 personalities in all, but we mostly see nine year old Hedwig, the tough Dennis, the prim and proper but sly Patricia, and the effeminate fashion designer Barry. I found him compelling to watch, particularly as the boy Hedwig.
The role raises an interesting point, as there is macho toughness here but also humour in the boy/gay/woman roles, at least judged by the laughter amongst the audience at the screening I attended. I found myself wondering whether this was intended, and whether McAvoy was at times playing it a little too camp? But then, thinking further, if someone has such a disorder, what are they basing the other personalities on? Where have they picked up how a gay fashion designer might act? Maybe they would base it on the stereotypes they see around them. So, the issue was not whether you thought the actor pushed the characterisation too far, but whether you think that however he delivers it, he delivers it convincingly. And the answer is, yes. In the end, I found myself feeling sorry for McAvoy’s character, suffering from the horde of personalities which inhabit his mind.

The premise of M. Night Shyamalan’s story is worth dwelling on a little more, as it offers an explanation of where the supernatural comes from. And it suggests it’s more natural than super. How is it, says the film, that when someone has multiple personalities one of them can be, say, allergic to something so as to cause a physical reaction, but another personality does not have the allergy and does not react physically. So what is the power of the mind to influence the body? I can’t say anymore for fear of spoiling the story, but it’s an intriguing point for Shyamalan to explore.

All in all, Split is a taut well made thriller I’d recommend. Watch out for a brief cameo from Shyamalan himself, and from one other actor whose appearance drew a collective “oooh” from the audience.

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