Split (2016)

Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed…

Image result for split film poster

I’ve never really been the biggest fan of M. Night Shyamalan. I’ve seen enough of his films to know that I can expect very little substance to come from his direction. But when I saw the trailer for Split, I have to admit that I was intrigued. So the other night, I decided to give one of my least favourite directors one more shot.

As the tagline reads, Kevin is a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, who has 23 different, distinct personalities. The basic premise of this film is that one of his personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three young girls. They wake in a room, drugged and groggy, in a scene vaguely reminiscent of 10 Cloverfield Lane, and in the following scenes, the audience can be forgiven for assuming the kidnapped teens are there for the sexual gratification of their captor. But Dennis’ motive is altogether different, and here the film hints for the first time at the pending arrival of a 24th personality, chillingly referred to as “The Beast”.

This film had the potential to be a real disaster. And according to quite a few reviews I’ve read since watching the film, it was. Shyamalan has caused something of an internet uproar with his portrayal of an already disputable, though legitimate and recognised mental illness. Along with other films such as Secret Window, and even Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, Split‘s portrayal of Kevin’s other personalities (or at least the ones we see) is, for the most part, largely negative. This had led certain reviewers to boycott the film, citing that it only adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness, and gives D.I.D a bad name.

Despite the backlash, which falls mostly on Shyamalan himself, one has to give credit to the actors. Anya Taylor-Joy, who made her acting debut in the critically acclaimed 2016 film, The Witch, plays Casey; a quiet, intelligent young woman who seems to have a better understanding of her situation than her two classmates. James McAvoy plays Kevin, though most of the screen time is taken up not by Kevin himself but rather by three particular personalities; the sinister Dennis, commanding Patricia, and nine year old Hedwig. Each personality has their own…well, personality, and each plays a vital role in the preparation for the Beast’s arrival.

Aside from the three main personalities we encounter over the course of the film, we meet Barry; a gregarious fashion enthusiast, and very briefly touch on two or three others but aside from that, the other personalities mentioned in the tagline are barely even spoken about. I confess, I was a little disappointed in that regard, expecting to have more focus on them as well. But in hindsight, I think it was perhaps the best course of action, as any further character involvement and development would have clogged up the plot too much, and made everything far more complicated than it needed to be.

As with other films involving a character with D.I.D, Split indicates that the personalities manifested as the result of Kevin’s own childhood trauma. But this movie plays heavily on the underlying notion that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and certainly the 24th personality is meant to indicate that. Casey’s character furthers this notion, as we learn more about her as the film progresses.

I think as a whole, and particularly in comparison to some of Shyamalan’s other cinematic failures, this film didn’t do too badly. As I have come to expect, it had his trademark ode to the bizarre but in this case, I think it seemed to work, at least inasmuch as it furthered the plot enough to reach a conclusion. The main protagonist is clever, cunning where she needs to be, and tougher than she looks, and I think that was definitely a selling point for me with this film. The damsel in distress trope is overused, so I was pleased to see it tossed out the window for this movie.

I think this is a film where it’s best to avoid the reviews until you’ve seen it. There seems to be an equal number of haters as there are fans. But as M. Night Shyamalan films go, it was definitely not shit.

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