The subject of split personalities and broken minds isn’t necessarily a fresh concept to the world of film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho presented the chilling Norman Bates. David Fincher blew our minds with the Tyler Durden reveal in Fight Club and even more recently, Ryan Reynolds portrayed the mentally fragile Jerry in 2014’s The Voices. It’s a theme that lends itself so well to films, giving us an opportunity to examine the innermost cavities of the human mind, often to dark and unsettling results. While these films usually promote their characters as weak, disturbed individuals, Split asks whether a mind that can tap into the strengths of multiple unique personas is actually superior to our own ‘healthy’ mental state.
Split focuses on three teenage girls, drugged, kidnapped and stored in some dingy underground bedsit. Their captor Kevin, played brilliantly by James McAvoy, is a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, resulting in 23 unique personalities jostling for position at the forefront of his mind. The girls are informed that they’ve been taken for a reason, their ‘impure flesh’ is destined to be devoured by a potential 24th persona, The Beast. But is he real, or just a fictitious creation of an already confused mind?
One of the three girls, Casey, is a bit more troubled than the others. Her life path has likely been more rocky than the two preppy and preened companions she shares her prison with. She quickly realises that they’ll have to try and communicate with some of the more helpful, less disturbing personas in Kevin’s mind to escape their nightmare.
First and foremost, we need to talk about James McAvoy. His portrayal of the multiple identities on offer here is both creepy and charming. Whether it’s the naivety and shyness of 9 year old Hedwig, or the eerie matriarchal confidence of Patricia, McAvoy nails his transformations. By the drop of a smirk or a furrowing of the brow, he flip flops between the personas, giving a real sense of watching different characters on screen. Some of the identities are more prevalent than others, all seemingly having their own purpose. Dennis and Patricia appear to run the show, carrying out their duties with a calm presence, often conversing with each other. Hedwig is the gateway to finding out more, as he relays information he’s ‘overheard’ about the dangerous Beast. “Someone’s coming for you! He’s done awful things to people and he’ll do awful things to you…”. McAvoy bares his soul in the role of Kevin. In a lesser actor, the identity switches would be hard to buy into, but here he offers a truly believable and disturbing performance.
The action switches between the girls’ desperate attempts to escape the moment they’re left alone, and conversations between Kevin’s psychologist Dr. Fletcher and his fashion designer persona Barry. It’s in these interactions that we get to discover more of Kevin’s story, and how deep the rabbit hole of his mind goes. Dr. Fletcher can’t really disguise the fact that she believes Kevin’s brain is an impressive tool, capable of completely different behaviour and emotions for different situations. Is that actually a strength as opposed to a weakness? In a world where we are both defined and limited by our own anxieties and thoughts, would we not rather be able to flip a switch and see the problem differently?
While interesting, some of these conversations felt a little too exposition heavy, telling us information we ‘need’ to know to understand Kevin more. I felt at times that the film’s pace was in fact halted by the visits to Dr. Fletcher and as much as I enjoyed McAvoy’s performance of Barry, perhaps we didn’t need to see him quite as frequently.
The film is grounded by the two fantastic central performances. As I’ve already mentioned, McAvoy shows us how versatile an actor he is here and much like his performance in Filth, how he’s more than capable of dealing with dark, disturbing subject matter. Rising star Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey and steals most of the scenes she’s in. Once again she delivers a mature and emotional performance, similar to her work in The Witch. The cat and mouse setup between the two really picks up in the final third as the tension ramps up and Kevin starts to unravel.
Coming off the back of watching films like Don’t Breathe, 10 Cloverfield Lane and Green Room, I (perhaps unfairly) expected a little more tension and claustrophobia throughout. But lets not forget that this was directed by none other than Mr. Twist himself, M. Night Shyamalan, a director with a LOT to prove after a run of truly terrible films (The Happening remains one of the worst films of recent memory).
With Split I get the sense that he’s fully aware of his previous missteps, he’s been careful not to throw in needless plot twists and ridiculously unrealistic concepts. By taking things back to basics, he’s managed to deliver a dark thriller that entertains while highlighting tougher themes such as abuse, mental breakdown and survival. He even manages to throw a little humour in there for good measure, which can sometimes be a little jarring. You might find yourself giggling at a scene or two while the characters on screen are too bloody scared to raise a smirk themselves.
Oh, and without saying too much, Split ups its ante with its final scene, adding extra context to an already interesting setup. Definitely worth checking out.
8/10 Bananas: This is a stripped-down, B-Movie style psychological thriller that throws up some fantastic performances and James McAvoy as you’ve never seen him before – a future cult following almost guaranteed.