Thursday, February 09, 2017
SPLIT (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)
Being abducted and locked in a cell-like room is terrifying enough for three teenage girls in SPLIT. Even more disturbing is discovering that Kevin (James McAvoy), the man holding them against their will, has multiple personalities. Like anyone would be in the situation, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are at wit’s end. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s more of an acquaintance of than a friend with the other two, appears to have gone into survival mode as she assesses how they might escape.
Their best bet is through Hedwig, Kevin’s child personality. He taunts them with the information that they are there as sacrifices for The Beast, but he’s also naïve enough that he might be fooled into bringing Casey to his room, which he says has a window. On the outside the girls’ best hope is Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She doesn’t know what he’s done, but she has a good relationship with him and senses that there may be a power struggle among Kevin’s personalities that could have caused him to do something terrible.
Although it’s probably unfair, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has a reputation as a filmmaker whose works succeed or fail based on their plot twists. Not that there aren’t surprises in SPLIT, especially the exclamation point of a scene in the end credits, but in this film what you see is what you get. Shyamalan settles into the scenario to reap it for all of the possible terror. His use of close-ups and preference for longer takes than is typical for current Hollywood genre pictures creates a sense of claustrophobia. Cinematographer Michael Giouliakis captures horrific beauty in the musty setting where much of SPLIT takes place. Whether hinted at or depicted, the film’s brutality comes in bursts that conjure the feeling of helplessness.
People dealing with trauma, often poorly, recur in Shyamalan’s films. His characters tend to resist accepting the way things are through a kind of willful blindness. Whether questioning God or a stand-in authority figure, Shyamalan’s protagonists reject reality for a more comfortable but self-harming illusion. What differentiates SPLIT from his other films is that he weaponizes existential anger and confusion. Underneath the thriller elements are a story about coping with abuse and choosing whether mental and physical scars provide a means of protecting oneself or destroying others.
SPLIT’s portrayal of multiple personality disorder is not going to be supported by the DSM-5 or getting a ringing endorsement from the American Psychiatric Association. (It would be fascinating to do a detailed comparison of how the director portrays therapists throughout his filmography.) Still, McAvoy does an excellent job of being convincing and quietly menacing in Kevin’s various personalities. There’s nothing actorly about the performance, yet he crafts distinct individuals in his different guises. Shyamalan and McAvoy collaborate to hit the proper tone with a tricky character who could be laughable. When he’s dressed and acting as Patricia, it’s unsettling to see this guy with a shaved head who believes he is an officious woman. That earnest belief in the moment, regardless of the truth, is why SPLIT disturbs.