02nd Jun2017

‘Split’ DVD Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula | Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

split-dvd

M. Night Shyamalan was once the devil prince of the movie twist, mischievously upending audiences’ expectations with increasingly contrived plot devices which retroactively flooded his films with new meaning. Breaking point arrived with The Village – not because the twist was a bad one, but because its central conceit needn’t have been a twist. His rep had reached the point of self-parody. And then we lost him down the rabbit hole.

Thankfully, the auteur returned to form with 2013’s The Visit, his first collaboration with the increasingly vital Blumhouse Productions. Turns out it’s a marriage made in haunted heaven. Split is the better movie, and one that doesn’t need any dusting for its author’s prints.

James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man suffering from – or possibly enabled by – “Dissociative Identity Disorder”. In short, this gives him access to a couple of dozen separate identities. There’s Barry, the camp fashion designer; Patricia, the uptight English madam; Hedwig, the nine-year-old… Etcetera.

Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is Kevin’s shrink, and she has a theory that her client’s condition holds the key to the next step of human evolution. She reckons it’s possible for each personality to actually shape the sufferer’s body chemistry. However, she has no idea that Kevin has just kidnapped three teenage girls: Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). He’s locked them in an underground cell, and his sinister visits change depending on his current identity. His mood is shifting inexorably toward his final, secret identity, and soon the “Beast” will “step into the light”. Time is running out, and it seems only Casey has the strength and smarts to play Kevin at his own game.

There’s no way around considering Split’s most interesting aspects without spoilers, so here’s the warning. You will ruin the movie for yourself if you continue reading….

What differentiates Split’s revelatory ending from Shyamalan’s previous twists is that it breaks out of the confines of the narrative. A meta-twist, if you will. Fading in James Newton Howard’s Unbreakable theme is a stroke of genius, dropping the penny for those of us who still regard the 2000 film as the heartfelt highpoint for the CBM genre. Then we see Bruce Willis and suddenly everything becomes clear.

Or does it? Split and Unbreakable appear to have precious little in common. But look closer. It’s all about – in classic comic book style – the way the superhero (Willis’s David) and supervillain (McAvoy’s Kevin) mirror each other.

In Unbreakable, David repeatedly and reluctantly returns to his portentous mentor (Mr Glass); the person who wishes to unlock his potential. In Split, Kevin repeatedly and reluctantly returns to his portentous mentor (Dr Fletcher); the person who wishes to unlock his potential. (There’s a visual connection too: the first time we see David and Kevin with their respective elder, they are admiring art.)

David is trying to deny his powers and suppress his destiny as a superhero, which he does through the guise of domestic normality. Kevin is trying to deny his powers and suppress his destiny as a supervillain, which he does through multiple guises.

There comes a moment in which both David and Kevin must bite the bullet and accept their super-role. Kevin, in the form of the Beast, asserts that the time of “ordinary humanity” is over. Coming to much the same conclusion as Mr Glass, Kevin ends up believing that superpowers do not exist to defend humanity, but to rise above it. The difference between David and Kevin is humility. David protects normality; Kevin seeks to destroy it.

Someone who longs for normality is Casey, the stoical hero of Split. Casey’s response to the kidnapping is forged by a childhood of abuse at the hands of her uncle, yet also a childhood of patience and discipline at the hands of her father. The latter taught her to hunt. Throughout the film is the theme of predator and prey – and the reversal of that dynamic. “The thrill is about whether you can or can’t outsmart this animal,” Daddy tells her. Casey discovers she’s been kept in a zoo, where tigers stalk behind bars and a lion statue looms harmlessly.

Casey doesn’t see a madman in Kevin. She sees a man trying to be normal in 23 different ways. She seeks to empathise with him. I mean, with them. She targets Hedwig in particular, perhaps because he’s innocent and naïve – and closest to the age she was last time she felt innocent. Kevin was likewise abused by a malevolent guardian, in his case his mother. Both Kevin and Casey have learned to evade their traumatic memories: he through his identities and she through her behaviour (she deliberately seeks detention as a means of escape). They are very different yet very much bound, and ultimately they release each other.

Casey isn’t just released from the clutches of Kevin; she emerges with the belief that she can escape the captivity of her rapist uncle. The tearful stare she gives to the policewoman at the end is different to the frozen lockdown we saw in the opening kidnapping scene. Through her ordeal, Casey has learned to accept her fear. To express it. Kevin’s release is different. He is almost literally unleashed as the Beast, Casey’s gun wounds having vindicated his belief in his specialness. Fletcher’s mistake is her lack of faith. She speaks of Kevin’s limitless potential, but then concedes there are limits. The Beast cannot be real, she concludes. So Kevin has to show her he is real. What Fletcher believes separates Kevin from normal folks is precisely what kills her.

Embedded themes, undoubtedly, although in practice Split relies on a lot of telling. Unbreakable was better at showing; laying out the story visually. Split’s script is an imperfect Beast. Shyamalan has a habit of needlessly embellishing certain lines, as if referring to a thesaurus every other word. But a majority of the ripe dialogue lands. They may be packed with hokum, but there’s no denying that the scenes between Kevin and his counsellor, in particular, are tense and gripping.

As a whole, the movie impressively balances schlock with (pseudo-)psychological insight, and it is a product of intelligent and exacting craft. It’s a DVD cover cliché to announce that Shyamalan has rediscovered his mojo, but I’m happy to say it’s true.

Extras include a (wisely re-shot) alternate ending; deleted scenes; a 10-minute making of doc; and brief TV spots with McAvoy and Shyamalan.

Split is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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