If you haven’t seen Split, the startling new film by M. Night Shyamalan, you need to do us all a favor, get out there and see it. if you’ve already seen it, see it again! This is a movie that works as an intriguing character study, a riveting psychological thriller, a stirring empowerment story, and oh so much more.
The trailers *may* have given too much away, but probably not. It’s safe to say that this is the story of three teenage girls who get kidnapped by a derranged psychopath with multiple personalities. James McAvoy plays that psycopath, and though I wouldn’t dream of revealing his character’s true name or nature, I hardly think it would be a disservice to say he is absolutely brilliant in all his personalities. There’s Dennis, the cold, vicious agressor who likes to watch girls dance. Patricia, the stern matriarch who keeps Dennis in line. Barry, the affable fashion designer who tries to reassure the psychiatrist that everyone is fine. And there’s Hedwig, who is 9 years old and likes to draw and dance to Kanye.
It’s uncanny how chamelon-like McAvoy is. With just a slight facial expression or a drop in timbre, you immediately know which personality he’s shifting into. He has a striking ability to evoke either menace or empathy, depending on which character he’s inhabiting.
The other break-out performance is Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the kidnapped girl who plans her escape the best and puts up the most resistance. Casey is a bit of a social outcast herself, only invited to the party because Claire’s father felt she couldn’t invite everyone in her art class EXCEPT the girl who keeps to herself. In a raw, naked scene, Casey admits to Hedwig that although she has excellent grades, she gets in trouble sometimes on purpose because she wants detention, which is a form of attention without social obligation. Like McAvoy, she doesn’t know what to do with herself in an ordered society, and so she tries various suits on, searching for one that fits. The difference is that Casey does it consciousnelly, whereas he is compelled by his psychosis. Claire has secrets of her own and a past that may have prepared her for this ordeal in more ways than anyone guesses. Anya is sublime and subdued in this performance. She gives little away. The conflict between her and McAvoy is mesmerizing, and it’s intriguing to see it play out.
The most fascinating relationship in the script is between Casey and “Hedwig”. Shyamalan and his players make this dynamic simultaneously creepy and moving. McAvoy’s performance is so complete, so convincing in his gait, his voice, mannerisms, and persona, that you could almost believe Hedwig is just a kid, victimized by oppressors himself, just wanting a playmate as he is a prisoner as well. And perhaps he is. Dissociative Identity Disorder, rare though it is, usually comes about from traumatic experience, and Hedwig who conveys both pure innocence and childlike fear, may be worthy of sympathy himself. There’s something poignant in that. We’re ehchanted and repelled by this manifestation of the character’s shattered innocence and oppresssion. Dennis wants victims and Patricia wants slaves, but all Hedwig wants is a friend. Which identity is real? Who should Casey talk to? She naturally gravitates towards the child, who sge might be able to use for escape. There’s a magnetic scene where Hedwig bashfully asks Casey for a kiss. The other girls wouldn’t let him, he explains. In that moment, Casey understands, and there is nothing sexual or malevolent about it. When she kisses the psycho in this form, it really is as if she is kissing a child.
Which brings us to the crux of the story. How real are the indentities? How does one quantify and respond practically to such an immersive and convincing psychological state? Can we punish little Hedwig for the crimes of Dennis? Barry’s fashion designs, Dr. Fletcher admits, are quite stylish and artistic. If only that one were to dominate. And what of the real, original identity that may still be at the core? Where is this all going?
The third act is breath-taking and mind-blowing. As a thriller it is riveting and horrific, with moments of a terror more true than anything we’ve witnessed at this point. As a character study and morality play, there are moments of decision that put forth such agony and tenderness the result is overwhelming.
And that ending, ooh, that ending. For one character, it’s a bittersweet resolution. Everything has changed and nothing has changed, but perhaps growth is possible, and this harrowing experience has empowered. For another, this is not the end but a terrifying beginning. For yet another…well, I’ve said too much.
I can’t give away the twist, but let me just say it’s given me more than I remembered was possible from a movie. You go into a film expecting one thing, and not only does it fulfill and exceed all your expectations on that level, but you walk out with so much more, something entirely different and magnificent and…well, you’ll see it. A genius like M. Night Shyamalan, his players James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy pulled it off, with the magic of cinema and the shear unbridled joy of discovery. There is still magic in this world, and if Split has but a fraction, I kindly invite you to discover it for yourself.