Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016): USA

Reviewed by Vincenzo Muia at The 2016 AFI Film Festival.

After an unnerving wait in a tedious line, my lineal section was granted access to the TCL Chinese Theatre. Our seats were discovered in the third row, excruciatingly close to the screen, yet a handshake’s distance from director M. Night Shyamalan.

Once again infusing the premise of behavioral health much like his last film The Visit (2015), director M. Night Shyamalan explores the condition of dissociative identity disorder, conveyed by the multiple personalities of protagonist Kevin (James McAvoy). After cunningly kidnapping three girls in the father’s vehicle: Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and the distant tag-along Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), they are chloroformed and imprisoned in a windowless, dungeonous room. McAvoy begins to reveal multiple personalities to the girls each time, one as a prim female, another as an innocent, precocious boy. There is a sense of superficiality in the characters of Marcia and Claire, however, the distant Casey, who was in the car as she didn’t have a ride home, provides an underlying storyline in the film. Through flashbacks, we learn of Casey’s sexual abuse at a young age at the hands of an uncle, which in integral for the duration of the film. While the girls attempt to create a turmoil by pitting Kevin’s personalities against each other as a means of escaping, he visits with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who not only is fascinated with the multiple personalities but strives to coax the last dormant and dominant personality to reveal itself. While Dr. Fletcher displays unusal poise in dealing with the multiple personalities, she theorizes to her colleagues that patients with DID have the ability to induce a physical changes through each personality.  The film becomes a cat and mouse race against time to find the trapped heroines before the final, malevolent personality it revealed.

Split offers outstanding cinematography, cuts and close-ups of the unhinged face of McAvoy created an unnerving feeling as to which nefarious personality I was looking at. Most outstanding is McAvoy’s brave performance, who showed a seamless mode of transitioning running from one character to another, very fluid. Another aspect exhibited in the film is Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ inducing ability to capture the sense of isolation with tight framing within the kryptology of the narrative. Although I felt the form could have been assisted from condensing several sequences, there is no mistaking the beastly soundtrack which keep the viewer on edge by not providing the leisurely sense of safety. Prior to the screening, M. Night Shayamalan encourages the audience to refrain from revealing the surprising twist at the conclusion of the film, much like Hitchcock’s addressed an audience prior to the screening of Psycho (1960).

A clue is always evident in Shayamalan’s films, and perhaps one resides in this review.

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