M. Night Shyamalan is known for his captivating horror movies such as “The Sixth Sense,” “Signs” and “The Visit.” So, I was excited to see how his most recent addition to the world of psychological horror films, “Split,” measured up to his chilling predecessors. However, “Split” ultimately fails to deliver the suspense and thrill promised by this genre, and resorts to using a mental disorder and childhood sexual abuse as plot devices to add shock value.
The film begins when three high school girls are kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID), and kept prisoner in his underground bunker. Kevin lives with 23 distinct personalities, ranging from a 9-year-old boy to a glamorous fashion designer. He switches between these personalities instantaneously, and some are more powerful than others.
Two of these personalities, Dennis and Patricia, conspire together to kidnap the girls as an offering to a mysterious “beast” that they believe is coming. The plot follows the kidnapped girls and their futile attempts to escape, as well as Kevin’s visits with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), which provide insight into his medical history.
One reason that this film fails to deliver suspense is the lack of buildup in the beginning. There are about five minutes of exposition, in which viewers are introduced to the high school-aged kidnap victims, until the action immediately begins when Kevin hijacks the girls’ car and douses them with chloroform.
A number of the characters are also portrayed unbelievably. For instance, two of the kidnapped girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), decently play the roles of spoiled and naive adolescent girls. However, their pretend fear as kidnapping victims is not at all persuasive on screen as they show almost none of the emotional response that one would expect from someone who has just been kidnapped by a dangerous, unstable man.
Another aspect of the movie that I took issue with was the fact that Shyamalan used DID, a legitimate, misunderstood mental disorder, thought to develop as a coping mechanism for people living in extremely stressful situations, as a means of making his antagonist frightening to the audience. Although characters with “split” personalities have been appearing on screen for decades (“Shutter Island” and “Fight Club,” for example), these roles often portray these disorders maliciously and can be harmful to the actual population living with the disorder. I felt uncomfortable at times watching McAvoy portray a man, obviously in need of extensive professional help, as a murderous villain.
Another plot device used by Shyamalan that I found cheap and distasteful was the series of flashbacks highlighting the history of sexual abuse of one of the kidnap victims, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). On one hand, this backstory explains Casey’s capacity to understand Kevin’s behavior. However, I found some of the flashback scenes depicting Casey and her uncle’s inappropriate relationship to be disturbing and overall a poorly chosen gimmick by Shyamalan to offer shock value to viewers.
This movie was a disappointment as a psychological thriller with its lack of buildup, non-believable acting and use of inappropriate plot devices such as a mental disorder and abuse to drive the story forward. I hope that Shyamalan’s next release is better thought-out and executed.