Split (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Shaymalan and McAvoy going way over the top

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Among a bunch of books I have kept since my elementary school years, Daniel Keyes’ nonfiction book “The Minds of Billy Milligan” is one of more notable ones I still remember quite well. Its real-life story of a man struggling with dissociative identity disorder is indeed a fascinating tale, and it is no wonder that Hollywood attempted to make his story into a movie several times after the publication of Keyes’ book in 1981, though none of those attempts led to actual production.

While its premise is partially inspired by that interesting real-life psychiatrical case, M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “Split” is definitely not something which can be described as ‘realistic’ or ‘medically accurate’. This is a dark, twisted horror thriller film willing to go far crazier than you expect, and there are many preposterous things which will definitely require you a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief, but I like how it pushes its premise way over the top as a tense, loony exercise in genre.

The movie opens with the kidnapping of three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), by its deranged hero played by James McAvoy. When these girls are about to leave together after Claire’s birthday party, they are suddenly attacked by him, and then they find themselves locked up in a room when they regain their consciousness some time later. Naturally thrown into panic, Claire and Marcia try to think of any possible way to get out of the room, but they only see more of how helpless they are. Calmer and more composed in contrast, Casey thinks this uncertain circumstance of theirs can be worse than they imagine, and, unfortunately, it turns out she is right as they get to know more about their captor, who is not just sick but quite unstable due to his longtime mental illness.

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As already revealed in the trailer of the film, he has suffered from dissociative identity disorder, which is formerly known as multiple personality disorder, and the girls encounter some of his many different personalities. ‘Dennis’ is the one who kidnapped the girls, and he is intense and menacing while also quite fastidious due to his obsessive-compulsive disorder. ‘Patricia’ is more gentle and courteous in comparison, but she functions as Dennis’ accomplice, and so does ‘Hedwig’, a child-like personality who go long with Patricia and Dennis but may help the girls if he is cajoled enough.

Meanwhile, his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to sense something fishy behind the seemingly usual appearance of her most interesting patient although she has no idea on what is really going on behind his back, and the movie spends a considerable amount of time on her rather radical theory on dissociative identity disorder. After studying him and other dissociative identity disorder patients for a long time, Dr. Fletcher comes to believe that this mental disorder can affect not only mind but also body, and we see her seriously discussing with other experts via Skype. Her theory may sound outrageous, but it is delivered with dry conviction in the movie, and it accordingly generates both curiosity and amusement like that equally outrageous neurological theory presented in “Lucy” (2014).

However, even she is skeptical about the existence of a hidden personality somewhere inside her patient’s mind, which can be an ultimate proof of her theory. It is gradually revealed that Dennis kidnapped the girls for that personality in question, but we cannot help but wonder whether that personality really exists as Dennis and his accomplice personalities believe. Is it merely a piece of their common delusion? Or is it something real and truly fearsome as suggested?

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As Shyamalan’s notable films such as “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Signs” (2002), the movie steadily maintains its serious tone and mood even during the most deranged moments in the film, and that provides the solid ground for its lead performer’s committed performance. Reminiscent of John Lithgow’s similar multiple performances in Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” (1992), McAvoy has a fun with playing his various roles while smoothly shifting around them without any misstep, and he certainly dials up the manic intensity of his performance to the eleventh level when his character (or characters, shall we say) is driven into full madness mode later in the story.

While the movie is basically McAvoy’s show, Betty Buckley and Anya Taylor-Joy are also engaging in their respective supporting roles. Buckley, who played a small supporting character in “The Happening” (2008), has several good scenes with McAvoy, and I enjoyed the subtle tension in their scenes. Anya Taylor-Joy, who impressed us with her breakthrough performance in “The Witch” (2015) in last year, is convincing as a girl who comes to confront her dark, troubled past through her ghastly ordeal, and her strong performance compensates for the relatively flat, underdeveloped characterization of two other captive girls in the film, who often feel like the characters from a lesser movie.

With his recent success in “The Visit” (2015), Shyamalan bounced from a series of dismal failures including “The Last Airbender” (2010) and “After Earth” (2013), and “Split” fully confirms that he is back in his element. Considering its big box office success in US at present, he will soon move onto a film he is already planning to make, and, considering what is observed from “Split”, I think we can have some expectation on that.

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