Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Movie Review: Split (2017)



Whether you’re a fan of archetypal slasher films, classic gothic horror, anarchic muscle-heads beating the crap out of each other or giant green dudes fuelled by the urge to smash things, chances are that you’ve run into a depiction of a character with multiple personalities, or Dissociative Personality Disorder as it is known today. Now, even talking about this condition is a tough order because it is easily one of the most contested mental disorders in medical circles (as well as circles where people think they know medical details) and a large number of us are still sceptical that it is even real. Me personally, knowing the myriad of diagnoses I’ve been given over the years, I don’t think I’m in any kind of position to question another person’s mental state so don’t be expecting any attempts at trutherism here. Instead, we’re going to looking at the latest film which happens to revolve around this condition, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. After the success of The Visit, I’m far less shitscared of that statement than I would have been 5-10 years ago. This is Split.


The plot: Teenagers Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped from a parking lot by a man calling himself Dennis (James McAvoy). After waking up in their new surroundings, they are greeted by Patricia (James McAvoy) who tells the girls that they have been brought together for a very special purpose. Dennis and Patricia are just two of the twenty-three dissociative personalities that Kevin has in his mind, and it appears that they are preparing for the arrival of yet another. With psychologist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) trying to put the pieces together, and the girls trying to escape their confinement, it appears that Kevin may be even more dangerous than any of them could have guessed.

Once again, we have a relatively small cast, and once again, they all deliver. Seeing Taylor-Joy in another lead role after her brilliant turn in The Witch (and less than adequate performance in Morgan) is definitely a welcome sight, but the way she handles her character and her below-the-surface connection to Kevin is absolutely stunning. Same goes for Richardson, who embodies the think-before-you-leap mentality that modern horror films are bringing back with a vengeance and wears it well. Sula as the third abductee pretty much has her character defined solely on those terms, which is a shame but credit to her still for not just fading into the background as a result. Sebastian Arcelus and Brad William Henke as Casey’s father and uncle respectively add a lot of weight to her backstory, Buckley pulls off something close to a miracle by making her dialogue even remotely listenable and Shyamalan, in his usual director’s cameo, wins points as well for not making himself a pivotal character this time around.

As for McAvoy, he has grown steadily over the last few years as a serious premier actor, thanks largely to his work in the X-Men prequel series. That pedigree is definitely evident here as his depiction of DID, combined with the personalities involved, is quite commendable. I say that because I have seen way too many instances where actors fail to deliver even one character on screen, let alone multiple characters in the same body. Here, you see that he has a definite sense of what Kevin’s Alters are and what their personalities are like, resulting in a rather believable depiction of the condition because these personalities genuinely feel like different people. Now, the marketing for the film touts 24 different personalities within Kevin but we don’t actually see all of them on-screen. However, I wouldn’t qualify this as a bad thing; I’d much rather have a handful of well-defined Alters than a lot of weak ones. And sure enough, from the child-like innocence of Hedwig to the quiet authority of Patricia to the thinly-veiled menace provided by Dennis, we get exactly that. Even the discomfort that comes out of seeing this one guy with multiple distinct personalities ends up inducing mindfrag throughout the entire film; have to admit, that’s quite an accomplishment and it thankfully aids the film rather than hinder it.

Of course, that’s all in the performance; how the text handles DID is a Beast of a different colour. In-between “Kevin” keeping an eye on the girls, we see him go to therapy sessions with Dr. Fletcher. Now, this ends up bringing up an interesting notion concerning dissociative identities, that being how one can easily be seen as another, but it also opens the floodgate for probably the worst part of the film overall: Dr. Fletcher’s musings on the nature of DID. To call her dialogue overcooked is putting it mildly, as the way she explains the condition makes it sound less like psychology and more like a warped version of eugenics. Given the current status of DID in the medical field, I’m not going to feign medical knowledge and say that her statements concerning the biology of the patients is false; it very well could be, I just don’t know. However, when it gets to her describing Kevin and others almost like this Aryan race that is beyond the understanding of humanity, and in actuality the next stage of human evolution, it makes the main conceit a little difficult to take seriously. I mean, sure, seeing James McAvoy in a dress and talking like a child in two separate scenes will probably stretch credibility with some audiences, but this background dialogue isn’t helping.

When dealing with any form of mental disorder, there will always be some form of backlash no matter how well-intentioned it is (HINT HINT!). That feeling is amplified when dealing with something this sensitive, to the point where protests have grown out of its apparent depiction of people with DID as psychotic. Now, while there is some precedent to that assumption, it’s still an assumption based on the common thought pattern that an individual in fiction that fits a category represents everyone in that category. However, and I can’t believe I’m about to type this, Shyamalan is smarter than that. Instead, he digs deep beneath the surface of the condition to find what is considered to be one of its primary contributors: Trauma. Through how Kevin and Casey’s story arcs are tied together, we get a depiction of the effect of childhood trauma, and trauma in general, that shows a remarkable understanding that seems to have gone largely ignored. Not only that, with how Shyamalan’s trademark plot twist manifests itself, it ends up justifying the pseudo-mystical musings about DID by framing it within a universe that is… well, without getting into spoilers, one less strictly confined by stark realism.

All in all, this is absolutely fantastic, provided you can get over the initial giggles of seeing James McAvoy acting like a nine-year-old. The acting is phenomenal, with McAvoy further cementing his place as an excellent actor, the direction shows Shyamalan sticking to what he knows best and bringing visceral and emotional thrills with panache, and the writing gives respect to a disorder that most deny the existence of by tapping into a common thread that is far from non-existent. And again, that twist ends up shifting the film’s paradigm in the best way possible, making me legitimately excited to see where this story goes from here. As much as I respect Passengers for its frank depiction of isolation and suicidal loneliness, this film’s incredibly complex approach to its subject matter wins out in the comparison. That said, I still have more appreciation for the layered examples of cultural exchange in Lion, so it ranks just below that.

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