DIR/WRI: M. Night Shyamalan • PRO: Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, M. Night Shyamalan • DOP: Mike Gioulakis • ED: Luke Franco Ciarrocchi • MUS: West Dylan Thordson • CAST: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
A lot of things about Split seem very familiar; the uncanny Norman Bates-ish embodiment of a mother figure, the concerned doctor who holds the key to preventing the unspeakable, the final girl who lives to defiantly turn the tide against her aggressor. But what is horror without its conventions?
Split is the latest film from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, and sees him once again teaming up with producer Jason Blum. Split follows the story of three girls abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. As Kevin struggles with the battle raging inside his mind, the girls struggle to escape, with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) coming forward as a skilled and observant leader. With a dangerous submerged identity on the rise and threatening to completely dominate Kevin’s mind, Casey must fight to escape, while trusted psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) must fight to save Kevin from himself.
Split is a suspenseful and visually crisp thriller. McAvoy takes on the tricky task of switching between characters, from flighty fashion designer Barry, to the controlling Miss Patricia, to the playful nine-year-old Hedwig. Though it’s unsure if McAvoy fully masters the switch – some expressions come across a tad hammy – his performance is notable nonetheless. Taylor-Joy’s performance is a great contemporary take on the classic horror/thriller staple of the final girl, and Casey is careful, calculating, and defiant.
While Split is a gripping and exciting film, I do have slight reservations as to an overall impression. This stems from the film falling in line with the tendency of the horror/thriller genre to frame mental illness as something frighteningly uncontrollable, a thing to be feared and abjected. Despite the character of Kevin calling out the stigma around his condition, the film does little to frame his illness as anything other than innately unstable and threatening. Though the suggestion that being broken does not make you weak is pushed forward towards the end of the narrative, I believe the reductive demonistaion of mental illness (Kevin is quite literally in danger of becoming a demonic beast), as well as the aestheticization of trauma is outdated, and can result in harmful stigmatisation.
In this way Split takes its place as a modern voice within the established tradition of the horror/thriller, as a gripping and suspenseful film with a troubling relationship to mental illness.
Sadhbh Ní Bhroin
15A (See IFCO for details)
Split is released 20th January 2017