Split lives up to its title in dividing my opinion right down the middle. I’m not sure whether it’s a load of gratuitous, pseudo psychology nonsense or an entertaining exploitation thriller/horror. Thankfully, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) has managed to break out of his disappointing – sometimes awful – run of films since the mid-2000s, by pulling an inspired performance out of James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) and creating an intriguingly sinister story with a surprising bite in its finale. It may be generic at its core, containing a few too many plot holes, but Split is clearly an improvement on much of his more recent work.
In the opening scenes we are introduced to three girls who are about to be driven home from a birthday party when they are abducted by a deeply disturbed man called Kevin (played by McAvoy) who has a dissociative identity disorder. He is particularly unique as he has 23 different personalities of varying ages and mentalities, that have been identified by his psychologist. What she doesn’t know is that one is still to show its face, and while some of the personalities want to embrace this supposedly all powerful entity, some are deeply afraid of it. As one of the girls, called Casey, shows intelligence and grit for handling the situation, the battle inside Kevin’s head and the girls struggle for survival, clash in a game of wits and guile that does not bode well for anyone.
M. Night Shyamalan picked his leads in James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) very well. McAvoy is on fine form as he moves between four of the personalities in a convincing, sometimes very humorous manner. These range from a youngish, menacing man with a thing for young girls, a fussy middle aged woman, a young boy and another man with a talent for fashion design. There are hints of overacting but there is no doubt that this is a storming performance and no mean feat. Taylor-Joy is the strongest of the girls that have been kidnapped and makes for a great heroine, though I found her backstory – a key element of the film – a bit generic and unimaginative.
The problems with Split arise when the gratuitous shots of scantily clad young girls become a key part of the story – it felt like a selling point – and the script turns a bit nonsensical with the explanations for McAvoy’s character’s condition. Pseudo psychology is a term that may jump into your head when listening to it. Another major gripe was with plot holes concerning the initial kidnapping and later events concerning the escape. They didn’t ring true as they were executed in a way that worked cinematically, rather than realistically, but that may not bother a lot of viewers. Shyamalan just about convinces with the clothing changes of the various personalities, as it all seemed ludicrous until the director covered his back in later scenes as to how this worked. But the strength of the lead acting cuts through these gripes, for the most. When the 24th personality starts to rear its head, the movie takes a strangely entertaining and surprisingly brutal turn and some interesting twists are thrown in. There is one in particular that you must avoid having spoilt if you plan on watching this, as it’s the directors best since The Sixth Sense.
There is no doubt that Shyamalan is starting to get into decent form again with Split, as there are places to go with the movie that he is bound to take, and even though it is ridiculous and unimaginative at times, there is no doubt that it is an entertaining take on the psychological horror genre. He has an exceptional performance from McAvoy to mostly thank for that, but he definitely shows that same spark that made him famous all those years ago. Maybe the succumbing to a bit of genericness has done him good! Kev Lovski