The best thrillers cut close to the realities of life by playing on the fears of the audience with the possibility that the story could actually occur. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s Split begins in a shopping centre carpark after a teen birthday party. Watching the three girls being kidnapped is the nightmare of every parent. The young women are taken to a windowless inheritance by a mentally disturbed, but fastidious man named Kevin (James McAvoy). The must quickly assess their situation and determine if they have the abilities to escape. Once they work out a plan on how to respond to their captor, everything changes. Each time the keys jingle in the door and Kevin enters the room, he has changed his personality and physical appearance.
These girls discover firsthand the effects of dissociative identity disorder (DID), or better known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) and how it directly impacts their lives. From a meticulous maintenance man to an English woman and even a nine year old little boy, they begin to get a glimpse into the 24 personalities that inhabit the man who is detaining them. The girls must determine how to escape before the anticipated introduction to the most powerful and vicious of Kevin’s mental hoard, The Beast.
With a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and his inspirational usage of actual historical events, M. Night Shyamalan (The Visit) derives his screenplay from the real life accounts of Billy Milligan. He delves into the world of mental illness and the considerations of what happens within the human mind. The storyline exposes the challenges experienced by the patient and the responsibility of the medical professional in the process of diagnosing and assisting them with their ailment. Multiple personality disorder and abduction are not new concepts for screenwriters. What lifts Split above other films within this category comes down to the performances of James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Shyamalan’s ability to extract great performances from his lead actors. This celebrated, but often maligned director shows that when he focuses his attention on the central characters, the weaknesses in the film can be excused.
The cat and mouse relationship that plays out between James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy is captivating. Audiences do not have to be fans of the suspense-thriller genre to appreciate the artistry of the layered story and character development.
This thematic tension can be credited to Shyamalan’s writing, but is masterfully delivered by the lead actors and the supporting cast. The gradual revelation of each character’s back stories is well-timed and provides the necessary layers to deliver an acceptable conclusion. McAvoy is devastatingly captivating with his ability to maintain each personality and delivers the charisma, terror and vulnerability that is needed for each entity. His performance is balanced by the subtle strength of Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Casey Cook. With minimal dialogue, she is able to show the strength and the long-suffering needed to counter-balance all of the characters inhabiting Kevin. The gradual exposure to her family history provides the essential base for this victim to turn into a convincing protagonist.
Night Shyamalan has a proven formula that has caused an abundance of critique throughout his career, but the films of late have helped his to rise above this judgement. Not to say that Split does not have its weaknesses, which can be found in the final minutes of the film, but this does not detract from the overall experience. The logical progression to the conclusion does stretch believability, but as a low-budget thriller, it is satisfying. For fans of the director’s earlier works, he does provide a bridge to his better works and it does earn him a place back amongst celebrated film-makers.
REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
Why is there such a stigma with mental health? Even with modern advancements and education, people still have a hard time knowing how to respond to the topic of mental illness. It is not new to the society, throughout the Bible there are references to individuals that struggle with these internal challenges. The realities portrayed in the Bible help to show that the answers can be found in the words of Jesus. God can help through the journey and know that it is better to seek help than to struggle alone.
Passages on mental illnesses: Psalm 34:17-20, Matthew 17:14-20, Philippians 4:6-7, 2 Timothy 1:7