"'Trauma' is 'Drama'" It's a statement I just made up (as far as I know, and apologies in advance to anyone who may have coined it first), but it also seems to be an edict that filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan relies upon, as his filmography attests. But never has this mantra been more evident than in his latest thriller Split, written and directed by Shyamalan, and starring James McAvoy (The X-Men reboot films, The Conspirator (2010)), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch (2015)) and stage-and-screen veteran Betty Buckley (Carrie (1976)), The Happening (2008)). In this film, Taylor-Joy plays “Casey”, a teen aged loner who, through an unfortunate twist of fate, is kidnapped alongside intended victims Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson. The Edge of Seventeen (2016)) and her BFF Marcia (Jessica Sula, Honeytrap (2014)) by Kevin (McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (“DID”) and possessed of (or is that “by”?) twenty-three different and distinct personalities. It’s a race against time for Casey to outwit her captor(s) and free herself and her friends before Kevin’s nascent twenty-fourth personality is unleashed.
Shyamalan has been a controversial and divisive cinematic auteur. Reception to his films has run the gamut from acclaim (The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000)) to ridicule (The Last Airbender (2010), After Earth (2013)). The low budget Split is perhaps his most challenging work. Trauma propels this film and examines its existence or lack can affect not only a person but the world around them, with one of its main considerations being the polarity of deep feeling versus disaffected superficiality; a theme that speaks to the polarizing nature to the film as a whole. It’s layered both thematically and in execution, demanding total immersive attention from the viewer. For anyone looking to be entertained and suspend thinking for almost two hours, this is not the film for you. Even scenes that seem innocuous and throwaway either add insight to the proceedings or ratchets up the tension. However, unlike most of his films post-Unbreakable, none of this layering feels gratuitous or self-indulgent. Everything is measured (at least until the climax) and effectively makes its point without belaboring it.
Unfortunately, one of the film’s other difficulties stems from its very nature as a character-driven thriller; one wherein one of the actors is playing 24 different personalities. This leads to a lack of character focus in the beginning which is incongruously both asset and detriment to the film. No stranger to playing a character with a multiple personality disorder (see Filth (2013)), McAvoy ups the proverbial ante by playing a multitude of characters and doing so convincingly. His performance is subversively arresting, exhibiting fully realized personalities while at the same time exhibiting a sense of not quite being all there. Betty Buckley’s plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, whose almost-maternal patient relationship is at odds with her need to validate her unconventional treatment regarding his psychosis. As the primary damsel-in-distress, young Taylor-Joy is as mesmerizing as McAvoy, but for different reasons. She evinces a strength, maturity, and vulnerability that belies her age, yet still appropriate for her character. It’s layered performance both aesthetically and viscerally. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula’s supporting yet strong performances also bolster the proceedings. Personally speaking, there is not one performance that rings false, nor is there a moment that feels extraneous.
Oddly enough, the film is disturbing in a clinical fashion while it also cleverly subverts the conventions of the horror/thriller genre. Given the nature of the story and the main players, one would naturally expect the occurrence of creepy and repulsive themes of regarding older men and scantily-clad teens. Credit Shyamalan's direction wherein the creepy “ick” factor comes without titillation factor whatsoever. On the contrary, the first two-thirds of the film are positively antiseptic, where whatever horror is gleaned there comes from implication…provided the viewer is paying attention. Arguably, the only true moment of intimacy occurs in what is perhaps the movie’s most tragic and horrific scene; a scene made more effective because of that aforementioned layering, and perhaps one of the best scenes this director has ever executed. Yet still, the film, as a whole, is uncomfortable, eliciting conflicting yet wholly appropriate emotions, with moments of comedy and horror taking place simultaneously.
The (almost) totally original score by newcomer West Dylan Thordson is minimalist yet effective, blending into the proceedings and intensifying each scene without distractingly calling attention to itself. The cinematography by Michael Gioulakis is full of mood and imagery that draws one in and heightens the film's enveloping, oppressive, and terrifying atmosphere.
Of course, there’s that narrative hallmark that’s served to be both Shyalaman’s trademark and bane: the twist ending. All that will be said about it here as that it will either hit or miss…depending upon your familiarity with Shyamalan and his work. Needless to say, it will make you see the film in a completely different light.
What few flaws the film has does not negate the fact that this is the best film that Shyalaman has made in years. It’s a film that merits repeated watching as it is so densely, meticulously rich and sublime in its presentation and dialogue. In fact, it is arguably too dense, for it requires that the viewer's attention from the first second to the last. It also requires a major suspension of disbelief, but the story carries it to acceptability and the payoff is worth it. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, one that will leave the viewer both repulsed and excited. Love it or hate it, Split will stay with you.