M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is so silly, so trashy, so unabashedly schlocky that one really can’t resist being remarkably entertained while watching it. It helps that Shyamalan employs all of his best visual and editing tricks – along with a fair amount of storytelling charm – to help sell the central concept. The story of a young man with 23 distinct personalities and the young women he abducts attempting to navigate those personalities to freedom requires commitment on the part of all involved, and this film is nothing if not totally committed. By the end, I had been won over and was able to revel in the pure wacky earnestness of it all, which may sound like an insult, but is actually a testament to the power of a filmmaker to transcend his conceptual limitations.
As stated, the film begins with a bang, as three high school girls are abducted in a mall parking lot by an silent and intense young man (James McAvoy). They awaken in a dark basement and one of the girls (Anya Taylor-Joy) immediately takes charge and attempts to figure out how to get out. They all soon discover just how dire their situation is when they discover that this young man is certifiably crazy, displaying several personalities, including a personable old woman and a bashful little boy.
Meanwhile, the young man spends time outside the basement assuring his therapist (Betty Buckley, in a worldly and compassionate performance) that he has everything under control and that only the more stable of his personalities are in charge. The therapist is cannier than she would appear, and her ability to manipulate the young man into revealing more than he planned to leads her to some harrowing conclusions.
The less I reveal of the story, the better. Shyamalan, whose writing tricks – particularly his reliance on third act twists – have become very familiar to his fans (and his critics), here seems to have chosen to focus on character and performances, allowing the twists to reveal themselves little by little over the course of the film, rather than as one big mindblower at the end (though there still is one that, like his previous film Unbreakable, re-contextualizes everything we’ve just seen, including the film’s supposed genre). By allowing the actors to carry the bulk of the film’s more ridiculous conceits, Shyamalan shoots and cuts his film in a way that supports what they are doing, constantly strengthening their choices.
Perhaps the most prime example of this is the way in which James McAvoy’s performance and Shyamalan’s structure become intertwined so that the young man’s different personalities are not only distinct psychologically, but physically, as well. This is not to suggest that Shyamalan actually separates them; only that it often feels as though there are several different people stalking the corridors of this basement prison. As the young boy personality talks with the girls and they begin to coax information out of him, part of the suspense is feeling like one of the more dangerous personalities could show up at any time, popping in from around the corner. But, of course, there is no “around the corner” prospects here, as all of these personalities are housed in the same body. But Shyamalan is so clever in his choice of shots and McAvoy is so effective at establishing the relationship between personalities, that it genuinely does at times feel that there is indeed several different physical people all conspiring to hold these girls prisoner.
It is, however, in the girls’ abduction and dehumanization (“sacred food” is how they are referred to at one point) that the film is at its most trashy and its most – to use a modern political buzzword – problematic. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with making what Siskel and Ebert used to call a “women in danger” film, the tone that is struck is so important. These young women are vulnerable and terrified, but Shyamalan doesn’t really allow us full access to their emotional state. Were he to do so, we’d never leave that basement, so we would genuinely feel like we’re stuck with them. However, by jumping to the therapist character, it actually undercuts the emotional weight of the girls’ dire situation, until the girls themselves – or at least the non-leads – feel more like props than real characters. This is only exacerbated by Shyamalan’s unfortunate decision to have them strip down to their underwear early in the film and remain that way for the duration. Only with Anya Taylor-Joy’s character are we allowed to see anything below the surface.
Thankfully, we are shown glimpses into Taylor-Joy’s childhood and the ways that she has been emotionally prepared for a situation such as this, albeit not voluntarily. By developing this character as one who has experienced pain and is a bit broken herself, Shyamalan creates an odd bond between abductor and victim. She herself begins to understand this, but doesn’t allow it to take her eye off the prize: she wants to get out of there. It doesn’t matter if this young man can’t control his mental state; she is still in jeopardy and wants to get to safety. Anya Taylor-Joy – whom many might remember from Robert Eggers’ stellar horror film The Witch – makes some very strong decisions here, never settling down for too long on any one character trait. This girl may have some experience with trauma, but that doesn’t mean she is perpetually tough or hardened. But she’s not completely vulnerable and afraid, either. It is a fully-developed character who refuses to be reduced to one defining characteristic.
The same can be said for the young man. He can’t be summed up, nor can any of his personalities. Even the personality that initially abducts the girls is revealed to have been birthed out of the young man’s need to protect himself from an abusive childhood situation. And the mysterious “24th personality”, whose eventual emergence is the event the other personalities are preparing for, is described as a literal beast, all instinct and brutality, but is suggested to have philosophies about coping with pain intellectually. All of the young man’s personalities at one time served a positive purpose in his life, protecting him from a world that is callous and cruel, and McAvoy uses that fact to avoid judging them. Instead, he commits to each one’s unique quirks and motivations, crafting several different characters that could be seen as archetypes, but he chooses to embrace as fully-developed and special. And while the interplay between these characters is at times utterly silly, the fault lies not at McAvoy’s feet, but at Shyamalan’s.
So, is Split – a film is so ridiculous that it at times borders on exploitative – worth seeing? I think so, if for no other reason than to see how actors and a director can elevate extremely limiting material into something engrossing and entertaining. Like so many of Shyamalan’s films, it isn’t the scariest or the funniest or the deepest, but an entertaining mix of all three, sold by a trait that hasn’t always served the director well: sincerity. All involved are obviously having fun and realize that they’re not exactly making highbrow art. And yet they remain honest and compassionate in their approach to the story; two words one doesn’t often associate with horror.