It was a wet but windless Friday evening in Pittsburgh when my companion and I arrived at the local theater. Anticipation built as we waited for our turn at the box office. It being the start of the weekend, the que ahead of us was comprised mostly of chatty teens and young couples. As we approached the ticket counter there was to be no argument. We were here to enjoy the latest M. Night Shyamalan picture. Having recently redeemed himself with The Visit, I had high hopes for what lay ahead. We entered a nearly empty theater that became uncomfortably crowded as the coming attractions rolled.
Split is the story of a man with multiple personality disorder, flawlessly portrayed by James McAvoy, who takes three young girls captive in an effort to bring out a final personality known as “the Beast.” His prisoners Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are confined to a stone walled room with two beds and an institutional-white bathroom. As the story progresses we begin to realize that while Claire and Marcia are typical teens with typical reactions to the situation, Casey holds a dark secret that causes her to respond differently to the dilemma they face.
Enter the psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). This specialist is introduced when McAvoy arrives for a therapy session as the flamboyant Barry, a fashion obsessed and quite humorous personality. These meetings will become a regular break in the action that reveal to Dr. Fletcher, and the audience, that her patient is possibly only “acting” like Barry to cover up the personalities that have taken over the lion’s share of his psyche. The good doctor also serves to develop a key plot element, the idea that people with multiple personalities have different physiological characteristics depending upon which identity has taken hold.
Back in captivity, the girls try different means of escape that ultimately force their abductor to separate them. Casey’s continued flash backs divulge that she is to be the audience’s focus. Her behavior with Hedwig, the child like personality, seems like Stockholm’s Syndrome on the surface, but we quickly realize that all of Casey’s interactions with her captor are calm and calculated. Giving her an unparalleled edge in this game of survival.
If you are waiting for the famed “twist” that Mr. Shyamalan is known for, you will leave the theater disappointed. In my opinion everything about Split was excellent except the ending. The acting was superb, the sets are both disturbing and realistic. Comedic aspects sprinkled over the plot allow the audience to breathe between otherwise terrifying situations. Take for example the knowledge that one of these identities, Dennis, likes to “watch young girls dance naked.” This is terrifying until the audience realizes that said identity is also OCD which seems to prevent him from ever being truly dangerous. The need for comedy in an otherwise nightmarish plot is essential, and Shyamalan is aware of this. However it seems that he wrote himself into a corner, calling Bruce Willis to ask: “Can you do a cameo so people ignore the unsatisfying ending I wrote?” Sadly, I am disappointed to report that this was definitely a “wait for video” film. Not really a swing and a miss, more like a hit sailing towards the foul pole, only to fall short and roll harmlessly against the the wall. Try again Mr. Shyamalan, you almost had a homerun.