Many of us contain many versions of ourselves. There’s the selfish version that takes the last piece of pizza, the giving version that makes charitable donations, the angry version that plots revenge, the calm version that lets slights roll off the back and so and so on. Most of us have all these versions combined into a single personality; but there are a few unfortunate souls that have had their psyche shattered into two or more different and distinct personalities by traumatic experiences that come to the forefront and take control of the body. At least, that’s what the doctor treating a mentally disturbed patient in the movie “Split” believes. To enjoy the film you have to buy in to the diagnosis. It helps that a very good actor is giving life to these various personas.
Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) suffered extreme emotional and physical abuse as a child from his mother. The result of this abuse is Kevin has 23 distinct and identifiable personalities. His psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has a controversial theory about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID): She believes the damage Kevin suffered opened up the potential of the brain allowing him and others sharing his condition to more fully access parts of his mind that are hidden from the rest of us. She believes Kevin is doing better as he’s had a job for some time without incident; however, Kevin has recently abducted three young women from the parking lot of a restaurant. Marcia, Claire and Casey (Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson and Anya Taylor-Joy) are rendered unconscious by a gas and taken by Kevin to his underground residence. Kevin, in his personality of Dennis, tells the girls they are food for the Beast but he doesn’t elaborate on what that means. Another personality, Patricia, tells the girls that Dennis is not allowed to harm them as they are meant for a higher purpose. Both Marcia and Claire attempt to escape and get locked in separate rooms apart from Casey. Casey attempts to talk to and befriend another personality named Hedwig, a nine-year old child. Despite all her efforts, Casey can’t get away and may soon discover if the Beast is real or not.
While the diagnosis of DID is somewhat controversial in the psychiatric community, James McAvoy leaves no doubt as to whether his character has the disorder in “Split.” McAvoy is fearless in his portrayal of Kevin’s various personalities. Whether it is the prim and proper Patricia, the OCD-afflicted Dennis or the precocious child Hedwig, McAvoy pours his all into each character. It is a fantastic performance that never strays into caricature or cheap theatrics. Each personality has its individual quirks and mannerisms and an easily identifiable voice. This helps to sell the entire premise of the movie. Should Kevin and his personalities not be believable the entire film falls apart.
And “Split” doesn’t fall apart. Well, it does a little bit but not from poor performances by McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley or any of the rest or the cast. The fault I see in “Split” is more in the way it never seems to be about anything specific. We are given lots of points to pay attention to with the mentally ill man, the abducted teenage girls and the caring doctor. There seems to be a point where the story is headed with the Beast, whatever that is, but overall “Split” never feels focused on one storytelling goal. Loose ends are left in a conclusion that feels more settled on than decided. A sequel is hinted at that might include at least one character from one of director M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier films, creating a cinematic universe. While I’m not against this idea I believe it lessens the impact of “Split.” It takes a strong story and sacrifices its conclusion with the hope of more movies in the future. Considering how well “Split” did at the box office in its opening weekend (early estimates put domestic box office at $40-million on a $10-million budget) the likelihood of a sequel seems high; however, I believe this film could have been quite a bit better had it been given a proper finish.
“Split” is rated PG-13 for some language, disturbing thematic content, disturbing behavior and violence. Without giving too much away, there is a tiny bit of gore briefly flashed during some of the final scenes. A woman is crushed to death. A character is shot twice with a shotgun. There is an implication of child sexual abuse. Foul language is widely scattered.
After a rough patch with some very bad movies (the end of “Signs,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Village,” “The Happening,” “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”) writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has come back with two strong, low-budget efforts in “The Visit” and “Split.” I can only hope he continues to find his way back to his heyday (“Unbreakable,” “The Sixth Sense” and most of “Signs”). With any luck he’ll stay the course.
“Split” gets four guitars out of five.
Three new movies this week run the gamut from a family film with some controversy to what we are being told is the last entry in a long running franchise. I’ll see and review one of the following:
A Dog’s Purpose—
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter—
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