There is plenty of real world evidence to suggest that, to a degree, our thoughts and feelings can in some way re-wire our brain. Neuroplasticity is a relatively young field, but an infinitely fascinating one nonetheless; discoveries are being made everyday, many on how our brain evolves for better or for worse and how we help that evolution along. It’s this idea that sits at the core of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, the latest offering from the divisive thriller auteur and quite honestly, the best in a very long time.
Much has been said – most of it unfair – about Shyamalan’s work and his reliance on twists; so much so that it has become a running joke to pigeonhole his films as cheap and gimmicky. Though it’s going to be hard for even the harshest critic to deny Split and it’s Hitchcockian brilliance, not just for it’s effectively eerie tone but also James McAvoy’s prismatic performance as the central figure, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder so acute and unbelievable that it has led to 23 distinctive personalities within the one body. It’s much more than just an “acting challenge” for McAvoy though, it’s a dynamic and rapidly evolving role that tasks the X-Men actor with an incredible amount of nuance and attention to detail.
As both writer and director, Shyamalan has sketched out several of these personalities to evolve separately but still run with a common thread of creepiness and the stinging sense that something could go very, very wrong at any second. This is real tension that the director has created, floating through the dark and decrepit dungeon-like halls which serve as a base for McAvoy’s character, whose name is Kevin but also Barry the gay fashion designer, Patricia the oppressive zealot, Hedwig the disturbed 9 year old child, Dennis the obsessive-compulsive sociopath, and a whole host of others.
It’s in this dungeon-like series of rooms, which Shyamalan navigates with grit and style, where Kevin eventually keeps three teenage girls, whom he kidnaps at the very beginning of the movie in a muted, terrifying scene. And it’s here where Kevin’s highly exaggerated disorder festers and espouses a malign 24th personality so powerful and beast-like that Kevin’s various personalities await it with a cult-like fascination. That unidentified side of Split’s villain is referred to as “the beast”, for obvious reasons.
Shy and brooding Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) fills the role of Split’s heroine, a capable and intelligent young woman who seems much better equipped to deal with the traumatic experience than her seemingly privileged companions Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula, who is best known for playing Grace Blood in the third generation of Skins). While the two panic-driven captives are drawn thin, Shyamalan does wonders for Casey’s character, approaching her back story gently via short vignette-like flashbacks which are both unsettling and beautifully handled, mostly taking place in the woods on a hunting expedition. Like all quirks in the director’s body of work, it’s obvious the initially awkward interruptions are building towards some kind of denouement, that while messy and nonsensical leaves enough room for Taylor-Joy to emerge as a true force opposite McAvoy.
Moments of humanity are left to Barry, who is the go-to personality for Kevin when he has to deal with the outside world and his long-time psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (played with care by the legendary Betty Buckley). It’s through these regular visits that we get to the juicy centre of exposition and uncover Shyamalan’s muses about an exaggerated form of neuroplasticity which leads to such dramatic, violent and sudden changes between Kevin and his other identities. It’s this set-up which also leads to one of the film’s standout scenes in which one of Kevin’s less desirable personalities “disguises” himself as Barry in order to appear more socially acceptable. Needless to say, it’s fascinating watching McAvoy and Buckley handle this scene with ease.
Like all great works of science-fiction, Shyamalan grounds this highly unrealistic portrayal of a real mental illness with a sense that something like this isn’t outside the realm of possibility (it is, it just feels like it isn’t). It’s comic-like; stretched while maintaining a realistic tone, not unlike one of the director’s best works to date: Unbreakable. There’s a good reason for this, and as Split comes to a close it’s clear that a different kind of ambition has reinvigorated Shyamalan for the better.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Split is out in cinemas from January 26th, 2017.