The set-up is familiar. Three teenage girls are abducted and held captive by a mad man. They try desperately to escape (in various states of undress), while they and we wait to see what fate has in store for them. It’s a bit like Psycho meets Room meets every reincarnation of Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th.
But, three things separate the new movie Split from the norm. Stylish writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, bona fide diva of stage and screen Betty Buckley, and the virtuosic multiple personalities of James McAvoy.
The movie begins innocently enough; popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are complaining about having to include unpopular Casey (Anya Taylor Joy) in Claire’s birthday party. Aside from a faint whiff of bullying, this is high school business as usual. Then, the three are abducted and wake up in an underground cell. Claire and Marcia desperately look for ways out while Casey seems more pensive, willing to wait and see. Their captor (James McAvoy) has a violent temper, OCD, and a penchant for watching young girls dance naked. “I choose you!” he tells Marcia, but as he drags her out, Casey urges her to “Pee on yourself.” The man, disgusted, throws her back into the room and locks them in again.
He turns out to be Kevin Wendell Crumb, a patient of Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a young man who suffers from “DID” or dissociative identity disorder (that’s “multiple personalities” for us lay people) as a result of horrific abuse in his childhood. The persona that abducted the girls is “Dennis,” who has, in concert with another persona, “Miss Patricia,” taken control of Kevin. Dr. Fletcher explains that until now, Kevin has been stable with “Barry,” a gentle fashion designer, deciding which of the 23 personalities comes “into the light” and when Dennis and Patricia have been banished because they believe that a 24th personality, “the Beast,” is emerging.
Dr. Fletcher is fascinated by all of the faces of Kevin and particularly interested in how the mind can control and even alter the body in cases of DID. One of Kevin’s personas, for example, has diabetes; and a case is mentioned in which a blind woman with DID was able to see when one of her personalities emerged. Dr. Fletcher speaks at a medical conference about the potential that studying DID might offer to people with disabilities. She is clearly enthralled by the topic and unnaturally fond of Kevin, offering support and sympathy even as he begins to become a threat to himself, others, and eventually to her.
There are many twists and turns (not to mention other personalities to encounter), and I don’t want to spoil the movie. Suffice it to say that Dr. Fletcher is right about the mind’s ability to change the body. The Beast is coming and as “Hedwig,” Kevin’s 9-year old personas warns the girls, “You’re not going to like it.”
Night Shyamalan became a sensation at age 29 when his film The Sixth Sense garnered critical and audience acclaim, was nominated for several Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and came in second after a Star Wars prequel for the year’s top box office revenue. Since then, young Haley Joel Osmont’s memorable line, “I see dead people,” has launched a million memes. A couple of other big hits followed, namely Unbreakable and Signs, but over the past decade, his films have been disappointing. Many critics are seeing Split as an exciting return to his earlier form. And, as last weekend’s box office brought the movie close to $100 million, it appears that audiences agree.