I was reluctant to see Split for a number of reasons. Of course, one of those was that it is an M. Night Shyamalan film. He had gone from the one of the best new talents to a joke on the level of Uwe Bohl within a decade. Still, even though I didn't think it was a great film, with The Visit he at least started making an attempt to return to making movies that were enjoyable to watch and not completely in service of a twist ending.
Besides Shyamalan, there was the plot. I have seen so many movies where it turned out that the shock ending was simply the good guy and the bad guy were the same person. And, every single time, they refer to it as schizophrenia. Every time they are wrong (dissociative identity disorder is not schizophrenia or even near it), and they do the schizophrenic community a disservice by making them all look like they are about to switch to their serial killer identity at any point and try to boil their kids alive. Where there is so much talk right now about gender and racial equality in Hollywood and how people are portrayed and treated, little has been said about how the mentally ill are constantly marginalized by falsifications of their illnesses.
So, watching trailers for this movie, I had it almost in my head how this was going to go. I am happy to admit I was wrong.
Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) is wrapping up her birthday party at the mall with her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). In a gesture of kindness she invited everyone in her year, including Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl known for being an outsider and always getting in trouble. When no one shows up to get her, Claire's father (Neil Huff) offers to give her a ride home. While getting everything put away in the car, he is accosted, and his attacker gets in the car with the girls, sprays them with a knock-out drug and abducts them. They wake to find themselves in an underground room prepared by a man named Dennis.
It turns out that Dennis is just one of 23 distinct personalities of a man named Kevin (James McAvoy), who is being treated for his extreme dissociative identity disorder by an expert in the field, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). One of Kevin's other personalities begins reaching out to her, but Dennis and two other personalities, a British woman named Janice and a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig, begin taking control from the rest - in particular Barry, who usually regulated which personalities came forth.
The problem with Dennis and Patricia is that they are both undesirable, with Dennis having voyeuristic and pedophilic tendencies in addition to violent outbursts and OCD. Patricia is vain and cold, while Hedwig, though able to come out at any time he wishes, is easily manipulated by the stronger personalities. The three believe in the advent of a 24th personality referred to only as the Beast. The girls themselves have been captured specifically to feed the Beast once he appears.
After realizing the room they are in was hastily built, they tear through the drywall in the ceiling and find a vent to escape through. Unfortunately, Dennis finds out what they are doing, and Claire's escape attempt fails. In punishment, she is locked away from the other two. The same also happens to Marcia when she attempts to overpower Patricia. Sure that they will die whether the Beast exists or not, Casey begins to try to get Hedwig to let her go, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher becomes more suspicious that something is going on in Kevin's life, as after every email she has been receiving visits from the identity that claims to be Barry, but turns out to be Dennis instead. Interested in talking with Dennis, as he had been formerly suppressed, she finds out from him about the Beast. While she has observed a number of her patients showing physical, and sometimes biochemical, changes along with switching identities, she believes that the Beast is a fantasy that Dennis and Patricia cooked up in their desperate attempts to protect Kevin from the rest of the world.
After receiving several more emails Dr. Fletcher visits Kevin, finding the Dennis personality still dominant. She also finds out what he has been up to with the abduction of the girls, and implores him to let them go. However, it turns out that the Beast is quite real, and something new and dangerous has been unleashed upon the world.
Let's get to the meat of my concerns. At no point is this referred to as schizophrenia, making this one of the few Hollywood films not to perpetuate this myth. However, it is a fantasy film, as well as a horror film, so of course there are going to be aspects that serve that. I really hope it does not need to be spelled out, but people with D.I.D., while displaying a number of completely different "alters" that may differ in age, race and intelligence, they are not able to become invincible monsters. While I think Split oversimplifies a number of things, there is not really an attempt here to make light of mental illness. Kevin suffers from a disorder, but in a supernatural form and not necessarily a mental health form.
What it also does is give James McAvoy the chance to really show what he can do. Most of it is in gestures and the way he holds his face. That said, not all 24 appear, and the focus is largely on the ones in control. That gives him enough to do as it is. The hints are that Kevin became the way he is by suffering physical abuse from his mother as a child, and the different personalities arose to protect him.
This is important by Anya Taylor-Joy's character, Casey Cooke, has already been through a lot as it is, with the loss of her father at a young age and being placed in the care of an uncle that is way too friendly. There are twists in this particular film (the Beast not being one of them, other than it happens to not be a simple fantasy), and the best one concerns Casey herself - even if the biggest one is left for after the credits start to role.
The truth is, we really begin to care about what happens to both Casey and Kevin, wondering if there is a way out of everything for both of them. It's a duality at the heart of the movie that goes beyond just simply making someone a villain due to their psychological problems. Both characters have dealt with similar pain and betrayal in completely different ways.
M. Night Shyamalan continues to do like he did with The Visit and forego a lot of spectacle and just make a good movie. While not perfect in any way, Split certainly is a welcome return to form. Although cracks were starting to from, I liked Shyamalan's movies up to and including The Village, and he has always been a great visual story teller. The problem is he began trying to be way too clever rather than making something watchable and, when trying to work with material that wasn't his, he more than often failed even worse than he did with his own mediocre scripts.
Still, the flaws cannot be overlooked. Fletcher, though Betty Buckley is a superb actress, is really there to provide exposition so that the audience has some framework for what is going to happen with Kevin. She is much more naive than you would expect her to be, which is important because she needs to be done away with after there is no more explaining to do. Rather than subtly bring things forward, which in many ways McAvoy does throughout the movie, Fletcher is a clumsily written plot device.
The other problem is Claire and Marcia. They do attempt to make an escape later on, but once separated from Casey they largely out of the picture. This unfortunately causes a sort of "out of sight, out of mind" situation in which what happens to them down the line would have greater effect if we had spent more time with them throughout the film.
That said, don't let the PG-13 rating fool you. Language wise we stick within the realm, but there are some brutal scenes, and not in the usual bloodless and mindless sense of most movies with the PG-13 rating slapped on them. This feels more like a movie that just happened to get the rating rather than one that tried for it, as this definitely was aiming for a more adult audience than most of those sad, neutered horror films of the 2000s that had the rating slapped on them ahead of time.
With M. Night Shyamalan creating a complex person like Kevin, and not making him a usual mental health caricature, I am looking forward to the sequel that is scheduled to show up in 2019. I am just hoping he keeps remembering what elements made this movie good, as well as those that made the other movie it is linked to stand out as well.
Time: 117 minutes
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessical Sula
Director: M. Night Shyamalan