Diagnosing Narrative Identity Disorder in “Split”

Grant Pearsall

Staff Writer

M. Night Shyamalan debuts new movie "Split" two years after his last movie "The Visit". (Photo courtesy of fandango.com)
M. Night Shyamalan debuts new movie “Split” two years after his last movie “The Visit”. (Photo courtesy of fandango.com)

M. Night Shyamalan has built a teetering career on a predilection for narrative sucker-punches. His films are often closely linked to the internet’s ‘spoiler culture.’ A two hour film’s twist ending can easily be revealed in a 140 character tweet, or an in-poor-taste Facebook post. “Split” is no exception—here is a film frustratingly wrapped in a secretive meta-layer that cannot be fully explored without unfair revelation (which will not happen here).Despite this wrinkle, what is otherwise delivered is qualitatively mixed—simultaneously mediocre and discretely remarkable; inspired yet cynically commercial.

“Split” wastes no time executing on its thriller premise. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) attends an awkward high-school birthday party, having been begrudgingly invited by Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) all to avoid the vagaries of social media scrutiny. Moments later, the trio are quietly chloroformed in broad daylight. They return to consciousness in a fortified, subterranean prison. Lately, it seems cinema’s preferential place for women is confined and sexually-imperiled (See: “Room,” “12 Cloverfield Lane,” “Don’t Breathe”).

These three captives emote fear, exchange light bits of Bechdel Test-failing dialogue, and await their fates with hardly any character-developing moment displayed. Aside from a few sparse flashbacks for Casey, there is nothing to incite empathy towards these captives. Sadly, the only outcome for their inevitable demise is a disaffected pity. This dearth of relatable characters represents the weakest arena of “Split,” especially when viewed as an uncertain exercise in the wider genre.

The prime motivator of the film is Kevin (James McAvoy). McAvoy is an absolute showstopper as the central antagonist(s), in a role that is effectively six. The film’s central conceit is that that Kevin suffers from severe dissociative identity disorder, with various ‘personas’ inhabiting his body (allegedly 23 in total) each pursuing their interests, or that of the Collective’s wants and needs. McAvoy effortlessly transitions from one character to the next: from Barry, a simpering effete fashion designer, to Mr. Dennis, a calculating, obsessive-compulsive tough-guy, to Hedwig, an emotionally stunted man-child.

The efficacy of Shyamalan’s work revolves entirely on both this premise, and the ability of an actor to deliver on in. It is then no surprise that most of the film is spent with Kevin, as he terrorizes/fraternizes with his captives, and visits his kindly, geriatric psychiatrist. “He’s on the move,” Hedwig ominously titters to his captives, referencing the possibility that Kevin has yet to deliver on his most terrifying persona yet, the apocryphal ‘the Beast.’ “Split” smartly languishes in Kevin’s multitude of forms and leans on McAvoy’s skills, even as it comes at the cost of most everything else in the narrative.

M. Night Shyamalan is the latest in a line of once-lauded, now diminished filmmakers to escape from ‘directors jail’ after having depth-charged their own career with expensive box office failures. This return is orchestrated by producer Jason Blum. As an episode of NPR’s “All Things Considered” podcast details, Blum’s production model is simple– find great directors and offer them the chance to make films with full creative control, but an inflexible, hard-line micro-budget.

The creative tactic has worked wonders for Shyamalan, having returned from disastrously costly episodes like 2013’s scientologist vanity-vehicle, “After Earth.” “Split” unquestionably has the feelling of its nine million dollar budget–small in scope, location and premise. This sets an appropriate tone;however, what seems to have vanished with the budget flaying is Shyamalan’s Auteurist verve and visual pomp.

There is no textual layering of thematic elements that suffuse a greater whole, no grand attempts at visual storytelling, merely filmmaking that is quietly adequate. While this grandiosity has both elevated and hampered Shyamalan’s previous works, the lack of chance for either is disappointing. This tale in particular suffers from this restraint, as it is rife with heady concepts like ideological schisms of self, identity dysmorphia, and the existential separation of body and mind.

The nagging aspect of narrative ‘spoilers,’ offers “Split” the chance to be the coveted subject of water-cooler talk, as the ending ultimately reframes its concept. Despite this gleeful sleight-of-hand that is indeed clever (albeit obtuse for those not ‘in the know’) and heretofore unseen in cinema’s annals, it does not otherwise excuse a film that only ever reaches middle of the pack status with its genre compatriots.

“Split” will delight, thrill and finally gobsmack, but much like Kevin’s fractured internal mob, it will never be unified on these fronts–merely unfurling a loose, dysfunctional coalition. Shyamalan’s “Split” has a story identity disorder that cannot be rectified—spoilers be damned—forever existing in its own rare and interesting disarray.
Grade [B-]

Running time: 117 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Now showing in theaters