Catching Up: Split (2016) – The True Beasts?

Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy in Split

When it comes to M Night Shyamalan, everybody has their own opinion. For most it’s that, after the shocking disaster of After Earth he has had his moment, the number of second chances he has been given have been too many. Others are patiently waiting for the next Unbreakable of The Sixth Sense. Luckily for those people, Split is a little bit of both and it’s a return to form for the much maligned director.

Split follows solitary Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who after attending a party for a girl in her art class is kindly offered a ride home. However when a mysterious man, Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps her and two other girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) she is forced to find a way to survive and escape the multiple personalities filling her kidnappers head.

The reason Split works as not only a horror but also as a film is the fact that Shyamalan thrives in the unknown. The reason his films usually revolve around a twist of some variety is that leaving his audience hanging is more tantalising than slowly revealing things over time. This approach has worked well for him (The Sixth Sense) and woefully (The Happening). Split as a story is thin and is therefore pushed to its breaking point with the extended run time but the direction here and the slow painful way he ramps up the tension makes for compelling drama.

The symbolism on display can seem heavy-handed at times but most goes under the radar, building divides between Kevin and his prey, as well as Casey and her fellow victims. This break up of characters messes with them psychologically while making the division between characters seem almost natural. There is a certain claustrophobia on display with the narrow hallways, closed off tunnels and close up shooting that makes Casey’s experience crushing but it makes Kevin’s existence oddly pitiful.

It is this connection between Casey and Kevin that adds meat to the films bones and Shyamalan’s ability to find something to empathise with in a character like Kevin is what makes Casey and us connect with him. Kevin, much like Casey is a broken creature, fractured like glass with each personality acting like a shard of his psyche. The expanded storyline following a psychiatrist looking into his condition feels superfluous to the main action and this is where Split suffers.

Split serves as the origins of a monster, The Horde as it is come to be known as, but half the film is spent away from the two characters vital to the story. While it adds a certain depth to Kevin’s persona it detracts from, not only the tension of the moment, but also the building dynamic within Kevin’s lair. The idea that Kevin is attempting to stand up to his fears (his more dominant personalities) never gets fleshed out properly despite the attention to detail McAvoy puts into his performance.

Avoiding the usual tics that embellish most of the usual psychopathic characters, McAvoy instead chooses his voice as the defining feature of his personalities. It’s a smart choice as it distinctly separates his many personas but it makes the slow changes in how he holds himself seem all the more dynamic. There is no way not to be extreme with this character but in McAvoy’s hands it seems almost measured. The surprise here is Taylor-Joy who surpasses McAvoy’s wackiness with just the one character. Casey in her hands is manipulative, soft and contained all at once. Hidden from sight, her inner conflict only to be found behind her wide eyes. She might say a lot but its in her face that the real story is told.

The two ask the question of what makes a monster time and again throughout the film and Shyamalan plays at answering it but considering the fact that Kevin is not only a kidnapper and could be murderer, it is hard to see him as anything but a villain at times. The conclusion and the connection it makes to Unbreakable is Shyamalan stating he will answer it in this years Glass but it sullies an ending that should feel final after everything Casey and Kevin have gone through. While it is a questionable choice, you can’t help but wonder about the possibilities. Luckily we won’t have to wait long to find out.

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