*This review contains spoilers in regards to the “twist” at the end of the film…but that twist should be common knowledge by this point anyway. There are no spoilers in regards to key plot details*
Split was seen as something of a return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan. The once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable seemed to lose his touch with critics and audiences (and general storytelling coherence) with his post-Unbreakable career. Whether it was relying too heavily on forced twists in obvious attempts to recreate the buzz of The Sixth Sense, or just helming outright cinematic disasters like The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan became more of a parody of himself than he was adding to the legacy he started with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Critics found 2015’s to be a step in the right direction for Shyamalan, before Split arrived a year later and was considered the director’s comeback. Although it doesn’t reach the same heights of Unbreakable, Split is unquestionably Shyamalan’s best film since (that may not sound like much, but it’s intended as a compliment).
This is pretty appropriate, because (here comes the twist spoiler) Split takes place in the same fictional universe as Unbreakable. Wisely, the film never advertised itself as a sequel, and for the most part, it’s a standalone film. It’s only after the story is done that we get a cameo by Bruce Willis returning as David Dunn that it’s confirmed that the psychological horror film Split is a companion piece to the 2000 super hero flick. It seems like an odd connection, but it makes more sense than it sounds.
The setup of the film is simple enough: three teenage girls; Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped as they’re leaving a party, and are held captive in an underground building. Their captor is Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder (DID), with Kevin possessing twenty-three different personalities in his body.
It is those multiple personalities within Kevin that help elevate Split from being just another horror movie. Some of Kevin’s personalities, such as the “nine-year old” Hedwig, are friendly to the girls. Others, such as “Patricia” and “Dennis” are more sinister. Kevin’s (current) dominant personality, Barry, is just an average guy working at a zoo. But he’s quickly losing control of Kevin’s body to Patricia and Dennis.
This is where things become a little more “comic book-y,” as Patricia and Dennis both worship a soon-to-be-unleashed twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, who possesses superhuman strength and agility. The Patricia and Dennis personalities are behind the kidnappings, as they plan on ‘sacrificing’ Claire and Marcia – whom Kevin’s wicked personalities deem “unsure” due to their sheltered lives – to the Beast once it awakens (Casie, the heroine of the movie, wasn’t an intended target, but was at the wrong place at the wrong time).
It sounds a bit silly when I type it. But similar to how Unbreakable made a grounded superhero by exaggerating reality, so too does Split with its eventual super villain. It exaggerates DID and concepts like mind over body into the realms of fantasy. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), believes that different personalities of people with DID can exhibit different body chemistries from one another, but believes the foreshadowed “Beast” to be a figment of Kevin’s imagination, as opposed to another personality, given its promise of outright superhuman ability.
As you might expect, the film is about Casey, Claire and Marcia trying to escape captivity, often by means of finding an Allie in Kevin’s less malicious personalities, with the constant threat that Dennis and Patricia might take over. It’s a fun take on horror tropes that keeps things interesting, and allows for McAvoy to display a good range of acting ability. The film also takes a number of detours into Casey’s troubled childhood, with her harsh past coming into play with her survivability.
Split is a unique movie in that it has since become regarded as the first super villain origin story movie. That’s actually a pretty accurate description, and it cleverly masks this super villain origin story under the guise of a horror film. And Split ultimately works on the levels of both horror and an origin story.
Admittedly, the film does lack any real surprises (though I suppose that’s a godsend compared to the wonky twists Shaymalan is known for), and the horror elements lose some of their psychological edge when the super powers come into play. But overall, Split is a solid effort. It takes a tried-and-true horror setup (escaping a captor), adds a nice spin on the equation through its villain’s multiple personalities, and does a good job at character growth for both Kevin and Casey. And it’s all held together by McAvoy’s versatile (often creepy, sometimes humorous) performance.