Movie Review: Split
By Ben Gruchow
January 24, 2017
So far, we’re in general hostage-movie territory, albeit executed with more ambiguity and pause (Casey’s moment of realization in the opening sequence is a lovely exercise in drawing out tension and revelation). The context changes, however, when we realize that Dennis is only one of many personalities their captor possesses; others include a stern matronly figure named Patricia (which allows McAvoy to use his real accent), a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, and others.
The story isn’t really about a hostage situation; it’s about DID, or differential identity disorder. We’re introduced to Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she carefully outlines to colleagues and the audience the ramifications of having separate personalities with separate outlooks and (in some cases) apparently separate physiological builds. I will go no further, though; here the movie runs right into an identity crisis of its own, and the difference between the two interpretations of the subject matter available here is the difference between giving the movie the benefit of the doubt and failing it. Despite the sequences with Fletcher (who is revealed through flashback to have been Kevin’s therapist), Split is not really interested in plumbing the real psychological depths of differential identity disorder. Were this truly its aim, the way the movie goes about it would be disastrous: not only do we gain no real insight from Fletcher about the disorder, but the movie just about goes out of its way to suggest that anyone with the disorder must as a matter of course have at least one of them be evil.
Where the movie’s interest really lies, I think, is in testing and drawing suspense out of the concept of willpower and self-perception as an asset against real-world adversity. We see this repeatedly, manifested in ways both major and minor; I’m thinking of the obvious moments (Hedwig, unable to force a door open, transitions to Dennis and is access capacities of physical strength a nine-year-old would not have) and minor (early on, when it looks like Dennis may assault one of the captive trio, Casey urgently advises her in whispered voice to make herself urinate in order to disgust him into letting her go). And of course there’s the movie’s final act; this involves a new personality for Kevin that, to say the least, requires an explicit belief in your ability to perform unusual actions. That final act (and an entirely unnecessary penultimate scene) spells trouble for this interpretation of the film, because there really is a physiological limit to even the most committed mindset, and the ending breaks that limit’s believability.
There is one other way to look at Split, and that is as a straightforward cat-and-mouse thriller with a final story development that seems to suggest (or outright dictate) supernatural influence, all of it given the patina of weirdness that, for good or ill, Shyamalan has always been consistent at introducing into his movies. Here, the thematic depths of the story falter even more, and we’re left to mostly rely on McAvoy’s performance to sell its effect. This it does, and this it does manage to pass by. The audience I saw the film with responded to images of McAvoy in women’s clothing with giggles and sometimes outright laughter; I did not, but it’s strange how appropriate the reaction felt, how it’s something the movie anticipates.
McAvoy, as Patricia, accentuates his/her performance with asides and winks and tics, playing broadly for chuckles at the moment…but, like similar moments in The Visit, there’s an uneasiness thrumming underneath that levity. There’s a whole lot more of these moments in the new film, to its benefit, and McAvoy exploits that uneasiness with the practiced care of someone who knows exactly when to push a moment past the point of humor and into faint horror. And when the screenplay takes a turn for the explicitly horrific in the final reel, it is earned. And the final scene, taking place right after the cut to end credits and featuring a cameo we do not expect, lifts the narrative out of its self-contained setting and places it in the context of an intriguing larger universe. The entire affair here is still ultimately pretty slight, with each interpretation of the story offering some significant flaw. They are not crucial flaws, though, and that makes the difference when weighed against its assets as a thriller.
3 / 5