To use a character’s own mental fragilities, illnesses, and harrowing memories as a means of conveying tropes of the horror genre, is a technique that has led to remarkable, nuanced productions of late, most notably in The Babadook. Other recent endeavours such as Lights Out, The Other Side of the Door and The Ones Below have thrived in such a notion too, and it’s what sets the precedence for M. Night’s Shyamalan’s latest production Split to thrive off. Unlike the aforementioned productions, however, there’s not one ounce of subtlety to this underwhelming thriller.
We begin with the abduction of three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), at the hands of terrifying Kevin (James McAvoy), who locks them all up in his basement. Providing water, and his intentions unclear, every time he opens the door to check in on them, it’s a mystery as to who he will be portraying, as he suffers from a split-personality disorder, with 24 different personas. The girls are desperate to find a way out of this hellhole and to survive this ordeal, and soon realise that their best bet may be to play off his different personalities against each other – but any such task requires patience, and time is running out.
Tonally this film is all over the place, and the pacing and structure are disappointing too, while we head down several paths that over-complicate matters, when a more simplistic approach would be far more beneficial. But the one constant, and what saves this production from being a disaster, is the breathtaking performance by McAvoy. To play as many roles as he is takes some doing, and he’s so particular with each depiction that all it takes is a smile, or glance and the audience can tell exactly who he is at any given moment. He also has a certain vulnerability about his demeanour, an instability that makes for a character you’re able to pity as well as fear, which, given the heinous crime he commits in the opening scene, is rather commendable for the actor, as not many would be able to achieve this tricky balance.
Though no matter how engaging the narrative may be on paper, or how striking a lead performance McAvoy turns in, both are let down by the storyteller himself, Shyamalan – who seems to be so concerned with his inclination to implement a twist, that the film loses its way and becomes too convoluted and complex – and so gloriously unsubtle. There’s no denying there is a great film in here, it just needs a more delicate touch when it’s being told.