Back in the mid-1970s when the book Sybil was written and a young woman with a split personality was a popular subject for TV and movies, the phenomenon was called “Multiple Personality Disorder.” Today, it’s known as “Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).” In layman’s terms, it means that several different people live mentally within one physical body. In the new movie, Split, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan takes the concept a step further, suggesting that those who suffer from the condition have actually unlocked the mysteries of the human brain.
Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) takes this theory even further, stating in a conference lecture via Skype that those with DID may also hold the answers to all our questions about the supernatural. This is the underlying mystery in Split, uniting its various story elements. Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) has apparently been Fletcher’s patient for years and is able to function in society as Barry, an effeminate fashion designer. Barry is only one of 23 personalities, though, and when two others, Dennis and Patricia, become dominate, they prepare for the arrival of what may be either a 24th personality or a literal “beast.”
With any movie from Shyamalan, we’ve come to expect a twist. I will say only that in Split, there either is or there isn’t a twist. Try not to focus on that storytelling convention and I suspect you’ll take more away from what actually happens between the beginning and the end. I wasn’t able to let go of the idea and spent 117 minutes attempting to figure what might ultimately happen rather than simply enjoying what was happening in the here and now. As a result, I was left a little disappointed and confused by the post-title coda, instead of understanding its significance, not only for this movie, but also for the M. Night Shyamalan universe.
With that personal issue out of the way, I can tell you that Split is a compelling and engrossing movie. Its larger psychological issues are background for a plot that involves the abduction of three young women in a restaurant parking lot. One of them, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), reacts to a dire situation rationally. She’d rather talk with and try to outsmart Hedwig, Crumb’s 9-year old alter ego, than physically overpower Dennis or Patricia like her two cellmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) want to do. Either approach comes with risk, but both have potential to help them.
None of this would work without McAvoy; his performance is brilliant. It’s terrifying, but also surprisingly humorous, even though any laughter from a sudden shift of personality is as much a release of tension as it is a reaction to something funny. His character has learned to cope with his disorder by being aware of all the people within him, imagining them each sitting in a chair and “coming into the light” one at a time. Various combinations of personalities are apparently able to “ban from the light” any that would do harm. The actor portraying this character would basically have to do the same thing, yet with meticulous control.
Buckley is also quite good. We learn nearly as much about Kevin through her as we do through Kevin himself. She knows him so well that she can recognize when one personality is masquerading as another. She also knows how to treat different personalities uniquely, even the bad ones, to avoid personal harm. She’s as fearless as he is bold. Scenes between the two characters/actors are my favorite of the movie. It is in these scenes that we are most keenly aware that anything could happen. We don’t know what to expect. The same could be said for Split itself. It’s an exciting, emotional ride and one for which I recommend you buy a ticket.