By Thomas Griffiths
(For the first time ever, I’m going to issue a Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t seen Split, and I highly recommend that you do, then don’t read this review)
Split is written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan and stars James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley. It is a film about these three girls who are kidnapped by James McAvoy’s character, Kevin, who struggles with Dissociative Personality Disorder – he has twenty-three separate identities or personalities residing in his body. They are held prisoner in this underground facility by Kevin, and each personality appears to hint at the fact that he captured them for some higher purpose – at the same time, Kevin visits his shrink Dr. Fletcher, who tries to understand his situation and help him, but doesn’t know what’s really going on. Now, when I saw the trailer for this film and the kind of character that James McAvoy was going to play, and that it was a thematic sequel to Unbreakable, I was absolutely hooked. And when I saw Kevin slip into that car and gas those three girls, and I saw the way that the opening sequence was directed, I knew I was in for something special.
From the opening shot of this film, of Anya Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, sitting alone at that table with the other two girls smiling and having a great time – you get, from the very first shot, that she is an outsider, which is further supported by how long she stands apart from the others and how they talk about her. When you learn about how she gets into trouble at school, you become fascinated and want to know more about her, and I loved that about her character. And Anya Taylor-Joy gives a great performance throughout the film. M. Night Shyamalan did a great job at setting up how much of an outsider Casey is – when they get into the car, she is sat in the front, apart from the other two girls, and when Kevin kidnaps them, she stays on the bed apart from them, always split up from her friends. What I loved the most about her character was that she was resourceful – she reacted cleverly to situations and the way she fought to survive against Kevin was really satisfying to watch.
James McAvoy blew me away in this movie – he is outrageously brave in this movie in the way he portrays Kevin, giving himself 100% to Shyamalan’s direction. His performance in this movie is truly captivating, and the way he distinguishes every single one of Kevin’s personalities really impressed me. He seemed totally realistic as he played Patricia, the disciplined woman personality, or Hedwig, the nine-year-old boy personality. Simply his facial expressions in this movie, like when he first appears and he gets into the car and he doesn’t say a single word, you are immediately aware of how frightening he is. I suppose this is the performance of a lifetime in certain ways, in that you get to portray one person, but with several other characters to portray, and McAvoy really, really knocked it right out of the park – he is SO good in this movie! I’d go so far as to call this the greatest performance that James McAvoy has given so far.
I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Dr. Fletcher, where the ‘Barry’ personality interacts with her, and she shows such a profound understanding of Kevin’s condition and she talks to him as if he is a normal person, which I really loved about her character. Betty Buckley is great in this movie in that sense, her performance is that of someone who is just trying to help Kevin out. We get to learn more about Kevin’s other personalities through their scenes together, but we learn more about them in an extreme sense when they are encountered by the three girls. In fact, I found that all of these characters achieved something in their scenes together – Anya Taylor-Joy’s scenes with the other two girls set her apart from them, and hinted that she was much more complex than she appeared. James McAvoy’s scenes with her, especially as Hedwig, made him an unsettlingly sympathetic character.
This film’s direction is purely immaculate, shot and framed to perfection in every single scene. Mike Gioulakis’ screenplay set the tone for each part of the film perfectly, and the way he lit the film and set up wide shots to show the cooperative performances of the film, and the sheer beauty of each location, was something I really appreciated. It made me invested in the story, and made me realise the gravity of each situation that came along. When he focuses on Kevin when he inhabits a certain personality, he uses long, patient takes, like when he visits Dr. Fletcher masquerading as Barry, when the wide shots show his OCD traits and hint that he is in fact the Dennis personality. In addition, the flashback sequences are well-directed and almost solely focused on when they appear, and to some people they seemed forced and abrupt, but when I realise how important it is for Casey’s character development, I understand and even immerse myself in the inner meanings of each sequence.
What I also adored is the sheer character-building tactics that Shyamalan adopted, and the fact that it shows he is putting a tremendous amount of reliance in the audience and leaves it to them to figure out things in the film for themselves – he introduces certain characters and shows them how they are, and then he gives multiple other scenes that show why they are how they are, but he leaves it entirely for the audience to figure out, and I have to respect him for that. There are some scenes that verge on being exposition-heavy, like the Skype scene where Dr. Fletcher speaks to this board of people about the potential that her patients have – it feels a little beyond-the-pale, but when you realise what Kevin alone is capable of, and when he starts doing amazing things near the climax of this film, you realise how clever that is and how necessary the Skype scene was to make scenes in this film make sense to the audience.
The script for this film is also what surprised me – mainly how patient, clever and compelling it became as the film progressed. The script almost seemed to be completely reliant on the characters involved – there are always two characters in each scene that the script focuses on, it seems, and the script fixates on the development of that conversation. When the film gives us scenes where the climax of the film is hinted at, it does it in stages, first hinting at the existence of the Beast, and then at what it can do, and then what it means to the other personalities: What fascinated me was how Shyamalan made the other personalities into some kind of hierarchy, as if there are one or two that try to dominate the others and keep them in control…but the Beast is not a part of that system, and the other personalities exist in utter fear of him. They also seem to worship the Beast, and the three girls are meant almost as sacrifices to him. This gave whole new meaning to Kevin’s character, and made him much more complex – it was also a really clever turn for the film, showing just what kind of film it was trying to be. In fact, if you watch certain scenes with Kevin, it looks like he’s preparing some kind of ritual to await the arrival of the Beast.
What was also really, really entertaining about Split was how Shyamalan poked fun at certain aspects of Kevin’s character: There were certain scenes with his separate identities where he says or does something that the film’s direction makes look and sound so hilarious – especially in the scenes where Kevin, as Hedwig, acts like a nine-year-old kid with a nine-year-old kid’s eccentricities, when in fact he’s like a thirty-year-old man. Also, there’s this simply outrageously funny scene where Kevin, as Hedwig, goes out of his mind dancing to this CD-player, and it’s just so unbelievable to watch because I truly can’t imagine how insane that must look on set. If you focus enough, it’s telling its own story which I will not go into but, let’s just say, it’s really funny. I really appreciated how these scenes made Kevin a much more investing, entertaining character.
When this film reaches the final showdown, and we get this scene (scored beautifully by West Dylan Thorsdon) where Kevin enters a train (where, if you paid attention to the earlier stages of the film, you’ll know he was abandoned as a child by his father, and where he believes the Beast first manifested) and becomes the Beast. McAvoy’s sheer physical acting throughout his transformation is terrifying. When he absolutely barrels back to his hideout and we see him rip the place apart – that singular moment where the kidnapped Dr. Fletcher sees Kevin as the Beast, and we get that long take of seeing his towering figure bulging with muscles, it’s truly brilliant screenplay. And I loved the fact that, before he killed her, Dr. Fletcher stabs him with a knife and, instead of seeing it break against Kevin’s skin, we see it come back, shattered. Then, when we see Kevin savagely tear up two of the girls like an actual animal, and we see him climbing up walls like a lizard, we realise that his 24th personality actually is ‘a Beast’.
The final battle went the one way I never expected it to go – it’s evolved into a massive, intense and really brutal final fight between Casey and Kevin, where she actually arms herself with a gun in a desperate bid to defend herself. However, nad this was most frightening about Kevin, the bullets were ineffective against the Beast – he shook off the bullets just as he did the knife, and McAvoy’s performance reaches its absolute peak as he exhibits the true insanity of the Beast, and how it believes that those who haven’t suffered are inferior to those who have, and the terrifying thing is that it makes so much sense – Kevin has suffered fear and pain throughout his life, first when his father abandoned him and then when his mother abused him, and then as the multiple personalities fought for dominance in his head. And then he realises that Casey is covered in scars and bruises, remnants of her bid for survival since he captured her, and it makes total sense as he decides to spare her. Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy are incredible in this sequence, and I’d be sorely upset if they didn’t win awards for their performances.
The final scenes of this film are probably the most meaningful of it – first, there’s Casey’s story, where we find out that her uncle has come to pick her up (which is significant, because beforehand we learn that her uncle was extremely abusive towards her after, especially following her father’s death), and the final look on her face tells that she might be willing, at last, to do something about that, but more importantly she seems to be wondering which is worse – her ordeal with Kevin, or her ordeal with her uncle. There’s also Kevin’s final scene in the film, where he is licking his wounds from the battle with Casey, and his several personalities contemplate the power of the Beast, and we realise that the Beast will be coming back and it leaves us to contemplate what will happen with Kevin next.
But, most importantly, there’s that very final scene in the film, where we see those people in the diner likening Kevin with ‘Mr. Glass’, who was sent to an asylum 15 years ago – and we get Bruce Willis sitting in that diner, and we realise that this film takes place in the exact same world as Unbreakable. I’m telling you guys, I am so excited to see if this film has a sequel and how it ties in with Unbreakable, and whether or not David Dunn from Unbreakable will cross paths with Kevin Crumb from Split – is Shyamalan setting up a superhero story? Is Kevin the supervillain, where David is the superhero? I’m so looking forward to seeing what Shyamalan will do here. Fun fact, when I saw this in the cinema, and it got to the very end where we saw Bruce Willis show up, a few members of the audience cheered, and I knew that I was among friends here – people who saw Unbreakable, and who understand what the ending of this film means.
I have to say, the character arcs for both Kevin and Casey are brilliant – Casey’s dealt with abuse from her uncle, and after her showdown with Kevin she may or may not be willing to finally stand up to him in some way. Kevin, at the beginning, had personalities that lived in fear of the Beast, but now they truly revere him because they know what he is capable of. As far as flaws go, as the film progressed and we got these heavy exposition scenes, I did originally think that they were sufficient, but in some ways excessive – but, when the movie drew to a close, and everything started to knit together, I realised that that whole element of the film helped set up the world it exists in. In my opinion, that’s brilliant storytelling – in fact, most, if not all of the storytelling in this movie is brilliant.
Split is an extremely clever, extremely disturbing and extremely engrossing psychological horror movie, and I loved every second of it. It made me care about the characters and the situation, it truly impressed me with the subtle, elaborate storytelling and structure, and it made me genuinely excited to see if they make a sequel to it – honestly, Shyamalan made the right move in making a really good movie that’s so good we want more, and not a film that went out of its way to set up another movie. Go and see Split. You will be richly, deeply rewarded.