For the first hour of M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie Split, I was absolutely terrified. The director, who also wrote the story, had me exactly where he wanted – tense, shutting my eyes in anticipation of gore which didn’t come, even breathing a little shallow because I was so afraid that the three nice girls locked up in a basement would die slowly and horrifically at the hands of a man named Kevin, who is inhabited by 24 distinct personalities. It was vintage Shyamalan doing what he does best – using the camera and characters to create nightmares.
Which of course is never enough for the filmmaker. He insists on piling on hokey mythology about how suffering makes you stronger. Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder and at one point, his therapist solemnly asks: Have these individuals through their suffering unlocked the full potential of the brain. Split is also designed as an origin story for Kevin’s 24th personality The Beast – a character who has superhuman strength, the ability to walk on walls and a taste for human meat. Think of him as a cannibal Spidey. The Beast says lines like: The broken are more evolved. Rejoice.
As you can imagine, this goes from being scary to silly pretty quickly. There’s also something icky in the whole set-up – for no good reason, the girls are asked to strip and the camera’s gaze starts to feel prurient and exploitative. What keeps the film from utterly derailing is the performance of James McAvoy who is showy but hypnotic. He alternates between Kevin’s many personas with a skillful seamlessness. Barry the fashionista and Hedwig the 9 year-old who asks for a kiss are the creepiest and most compelling.
There’s also the marvelous Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, a girl with a past who doesn’t fit in at school but seems perfectly capable of taking on a monster. Anya looks haunted. Her pitch black eyes are so pained that she unsettles you without saying a word.
See Split for the two of them.