‘Split’ review – James McAvoy is 23 shades of creepy in M Night Shyamalan chiller

By Jordan Hoffman
The Guardian
September 27, 2016

Surprise! The Sixth Sense director’s shock-twist kidnap thriller premiered in a secret screening at Austin’s Fantastic Fest – a masterful blend of Hitchcock, horror and therapy session.

M Night Shyamalan achieved his final form this week at Fantastic Fest, the annual genre film bonanza in Austin, Texas. The king of twists and surprises brought next January’s release, Split, as a “secret screening” early premiere. We in the audience had no clue what we’d be seeing until the opening credits, which didn’t arrive until after a prologue. It was the first in a series of “aha!” moments.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is left without a ride after a pity invite to a classmate’s party. A helpful dad is willing to give her a lift home, but the two giggly friends in the back (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) are too busy looking at their phones to realise that the man who just slipped into the driver’s seat is actually someone else. A few shots of aerosol chloroform later and the three teenagers wake up in a locked room in a creepy dude’s basement.

But maybe it isn’t a creepy dude; maybe it’s multiple people. In a way it’s both. James McAvoy plays Barry, or maybe it’s Dennis, or Hedwig or Patricia. He suffers from dissociative identity disorder and, thanks to some of the more troubled personalities within him, he’s concocted a plan to kidnap the two popular girls for some sort of ritual. Casey’s presence wasn’t expected, but surely she can’t pose a threat to his scheme, can she?

The storyline in Split is split in three ways. There’s the fairly typical (but tense) struggle of the young women trying to escape their captor, then there are Casey’s flashbacks, in which her father and uncle teach her buck hunting, which teases out the origins of her steely demeanour. Then there’s McAvoy, in multiple guises, interacting with his therapist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is slowly realising her normally contained patient is heading towards a breakdown.

Usually when a character talks to a shrink it’s because the screenwriter couldn’t find a more elegant way to weave in exposition. However, with Split, despite being a horror-thriller, the most fascinating moments are the ones McAvoy spends on Dr Fletcher’s couch. Split goes all-in on McAvoy slipping from persona to persona, and luckily he’s got the acting chops to sell it. With only minor costuming changes he morphs from an angry clean freak to a flamboyant fashion designer to a precocious kid. The character suffers from such an acute form of dissociation that, so Fletcher argues to a conference of colleagues who just don’t get it, his mind changes his actual anatomy.

Part of me would like to have that last bit vetted by psychiatrists and physicians, but not the part of me that enjoys Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Or Psycho, for that matter, which, late in the game, Split resembles when the screenplay decides to make some riskier moves. Here’s where I mention that, yes, Shyamalan’s love of tricks is very much alive and well. You would have to have only one personality – that of a rotten jerk – to spoil the ending, especially in an early review of the film.

It’s important to say that Split doesn’t hinge on a twist ending. It is a full and satisfying film that, if you stopped watching 18 seconds before the conclusion, would still suit as a juicy bit of smart horror. It nicely rides the line between exploitation and serious commentary about the strength gained from overcoming adversity. Casey’s final tank top, one of the skimpier pieces of wardrobe in cinema history, is actually integral to both of these points.

But there is a neutron bomb dropped in the final scene that essentially reframes everything you just saw. It isn’t a whopping reveal like the one in The Sixth Sense; it’s more like the snap of a puzzle piece on a wider game board you didn’t know you were playing. For many film fans, it will be extremely gratifying. For others, it’ll fly right over their heads, and they’ll wonder why others in the audience are shouting, “Oh my God!” Split really is a movie for all sorts of personalities.