Although M. Night Shyamalan lost us for a while there (water intolerant aliens, anyone?) by relying on ingenuity rather than big budget special effects, he has created a tense, frequently outrageous companion film that has strong undertones of his earliest and best movies.
Shyamalan isn’t the only one getting a makeover here, though. Presumably tired of playing handsome, uncomplicated leading men, McEvoy – a talented Scottish actor best known as the young Professor Xavier in the X-Men prequels – has recently expanded his repertoire to include unsavoury creeps in films such as Trance and Filth.
The film begins by introducing McEvoy and the three girls whom he abducts who are just leaving a birthday party. The three adolescents are just ready to leave in their father’s car when McEvoy jumps in the front seat and drugs the three girls, taking them to an undisclosed location which is also an integral part of the signature Shyamalan big reveal at the end.
Trapped underground in an undetermined location the girls spend several days trying to devise a means of escape from the many psychological hands of their abductor named Kevin. While the two socially popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are the first to panic, the main character, a young brooding adolescent named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to become immediately despondent, almost already accepting that she will not escape her captor.
While it appears as though other people are interacting with Kevin on the other side of their locked door, the girls eventually discover that they are all the vastly different personalities that reside within Kevin, 23 of them to be exact. Each attempt made by the girls is thwarted by one of McEvoy’s many unpredictable alter egos, until he puts the adolescents into separate confinements, hinting towards a sadistic ritual of “feeding” for an unknown beast.
When Kevin is not looking after his captives, one of the more affable personalities goes to have sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is trying to prove to the scientific community that people with this mental illness may hold the key to unlocking other breakthroughs, since some of the personalities have abilities that go beyond the capabilities of the host’s physical body. However, Dr. Fletcher is unaware that some of Kevin’s personalities have gone off the grid and have kidnapped three teenage girls as they wait for the 24th personality to arrive, known reverently and fearfully as the “beast”.
Out of all the characters, including the 23 that dwell inside Kevin, only Casey seems to be given an in-depth backstory which is told through flashbacks revealing how her uncle has abused her on family hunting trips since she was a young child and is also currently her sole guardian since her father’s death from a heart attack when she was very young.
Split keeps the audience guessing until the very end and, as the claustrophobia of the tight angles and spaces from which the scenes are shot to the ever-changing temperament and personality of the girls’ captor, every film-goer is left on edge throughout the film .
James McEvoy’s performance is truly impressive, inhabiting a slew of distinct characters all under the same cinematic roof. These characters can range from a wide-eyed child with a lisp, to a female taskmaster to the perverted brains behind the whole operation, not to mention The Beast himself. McEvoy conveys his transformations through body language, facial expression, and accent, as his various selves take centre stage.
The free reign from Shyamalan on McEvoy’s acting allows him to take full control of each persona that features throughout the movie and his performance has been tipped as one of the most ambitious to date in a horror genre, to which I agree, and Split is the film that earns Shyamalan back the trust he’d long since lost.