M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’

The trouble with Kevin

The challenge of creating an original film based upon multiple-personality disorder is always a risky proposition. In the new film Split, Philadelphia-based writer-director M. Night Shyamalan and Scottish X-Men actor James McAvoy have, together, crafted the character of Kevin, the quietly serious patient of cliché-ridden psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

One of several James McAvoys in Shyamalan's 'Split.' (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Along with the potential for exploiting mental illness for entertainment, the film’s creators risk characterizations that lack subtle shading and seem overly violent, forlorn, or unwittingly funny.  Broken lives painted in broad strokes benefit no one, neither victims nor a film’s audience.

One man, many people

Then again, as shouted near Split’s finale by a once-submerged personality who has broken through to freedom and savagery, “The broken are always the most evolved.”

If that’s the case, the makers of Split must all be in one piece.

Beset with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), McAvoy’s Kevin pretends to be a model citizen when dealing with his long-suffering caretaker. She, in turn, has made his case a cause of sorts, one that’s made her the talk of the psychiatric cognoscenti. Yet Kevin is still hurting – and splitting – into the many diverse personalities of his past and one that spirits Shyamalan’s script. Unfortunately, that spiriting involves an often trod-and-retrod storyline: A kidnapped outsider whose abuse-ridden past bonds her to the plot’s villain, a highly educated psychiatrist who misses all the bad-news clues about her client until it’s too late.

As far as the division of Kevin’s personalities goes, there are innocuous characters such as Hedwig, a precocious nine-year-old boy with a lisp and affinity for Kanye West records and techno, as well as Barry, a fey fashion designer with an amazing sense of line and a propensity for brand-label name dropping, 

Other personalities are more insidious. There’s Patricia, a turtleneck-wearing, older, aristocratic British woman who coolly discusses human sacrifice with an eye toward the immediate future, and Dennis, a buttoned-up, easy-to-anger germophobe responsible for capturing three teens (outsider Claire is played by doe-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy) and placing them in the usual kidnapper’s domicile. Kevin possesses a glum habitat of dark, industrialized, winding cave-like rooms whose larger space is set in something cleverly related to the most demonic of soon-to-spring characters.

Solid performances

Rubber-faced McAvoy does his best to give each personality his or her own tics and tones and bravely gets away with such diversity until the twitchy near-finale, where Shyamalan’s talky script gets the better of him and gives away too much. An overabundance of nervous exposition rains down as a newly emerged beast-man hops around viciously and noisily.

When subdued, McAvoy warmly portrays the tenderness of the afflicted and one hopes the best of him winds up victorious. When heightened, haughty, and mighty, he's Lon Chaney Jr. bulgingly becoming the Wolfman. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Claire also bounces between muted menace and attack-mode aggressive, yet with more shading and soul than McAvoy.

The same things that right and ruin McAvoy can be said of Shyamalan’s new film and its script. When quiet and jokey, Split is one of his intimate best, as humbly suspenseful and teasing as the best wry, thrilling moments of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (the latter offering Split an amusing dénouement and a link to shared superbeing mentalities). At its worst, Split is garden-variety TV-movie psycho-suspense tripe, complete with mustache-twirling personality quirks worthy of Snidely Whiplash.

That said, Split moves briskly and benefits from a raw, grainy palette, unlike the fussy space gloss of more recent work such as After/Earth. Shyamalan seems to play better with tighter budgets and constricted visions, and this film finessed a mere $5 million budget. For all its screwiness, Split is a fine sign in a good direction.

As with most Shyamalan films, Split’s most noble character is the Philadelphia of his dreams, with Boathouse Row, the King of Prussia Mall, 30th Street Station, the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art as just a few of its shining stars.

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