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‘Split’ (review)

Produced by M. Night Shyamalan,
Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock
Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy,
Betty Buckley,  Haley Lu Richardson,
Jessica Sula, Kim Director

What were they thinking? Is a question I often ask myself while watching films.

Sometimes, the inquiry stems from sheer disbelief at what I’m witnessing on screen—Oh, god, how did they think this was a good idea? What were they thinking? 

Other times, it’s a more reflective process—Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder what they were thinking when they wrote and filmed that. Where are they coming from here?

I experienced a lot of the latter while viewing M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split, about the kidnapping of three teenage girls by a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).

Of course, I certainly had my fair share of bewilderment as well. Played by James McAvoy, the villain of Split has 23 different personalities living within him. The sinister personalities have taken over “the light” of Kevin’s consciousness, which leads to him snatching three teenage girls from a parking lot and locking them up in a basement to prepare for a mysterious ritual.

Does this film do much to amend for an all-too-familiar Hollywood horror trope of mentally ill people being dangerous psychopaths? Not at all.

Did Split eventually surprise me, regardless of my reservations about this dangerous stigma? It did.

Split is a deeply flawed but fascinating film, perhaps Shyamalan’s most interesting work to date. It has left me more to dwell on than anything he’s made in over a decade, and despite my many problems with it, the film has me itching to revisit it in order to unravel its many mysteries.

I hate the way certain personalities of Kevin’s DID are played for laughs, and I loathed the way the audience ate this humor up during my screening. I’m torn about the many parallels and links that Shyamalan attempts to illustrate relating mental illness to mental trauma—I could see what he was getting it, but found that these juxtapositions never quite meshed the way I believe was intended.

And yet, I found myself consistently captivated with what the writer/director was attempting to say with his latest film.

And then there’s the twist, which finds Shyamalan pulling the carpet out from underneath us with about ten seconds left in the film. The mixed audience reaction was absolutely wonderful, ranging from stunned to confused to howling with high-pitched laughter (sorry, that was me). It’s a twist for which I could write a whole new piece about, and perhaps I will, because I’ve been thinking about it ever since it was revealed.

The real twist, it seems, is that for the first time in ages, Shyamalan has actually left me wanting more.

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