We’re All Here to Protect Kevin:
Bursting onto the scene with his third outing, The Sixth Sense in 1999, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s critical star went very quickly into decline with his follow-up, the excellent but under-appreciated Unbreakable. His films have in the main continued to hold their own financially (or in the case of that execrable turkey The Last Airbender, a damned sight more than hold its own); but he has never really regained the critical good wishes he got with the Bruce Willis double-bill.
In fairness, a lot of the drubbing he’s received is well-earned; but some of it appears to be pure spite for a young guy becoming successful too soon; and it unpleasantly reached a point where it became fashionable and cool to make fun of him and take pleasure in putting the knife in as much as possible, something that doesn’t sit well with me.
I have no idea if Split is going to restore his reputation; but by God last night it gave me a couple of exhilarating hours in the cinema and concluded by sending me out into the freezing cold with a warm feeling in my gut and a great big happy smile on my gob.
Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy in a terrific tour de force of a performance) is a mentally ill – to put it mildly – young man with no less than 23 distinct personalities. And perhaps there is even another one in there, controlling the ones that think they’re in control.
Into the Light
Over the years Kevin has been treated with somewhat less success than she thinks by the well-meaning Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She believes that she is keeping Kevin’s more aggressive personalities in line by not letting them come ‘into the light’ – take possession of Kevin’s body. She is also convinced that some people with Kevin’s extreme personalities are actually capable of physical change. In fact, one of his personas requires insulin whilst the others do not.
And this idea of just how far the human potential can go before it finds its limits gives McAvoy’s casting an extra weight, given that he carries over the gravitas of Professor Xavier of the X-men.
One of the personas – ‘Dennis’ – is more out of the light than the good doctor thinks. And whilst the collective horde of characters maintain that they are only there to protect Kevin, ‘Dennis’ and ‘Patricia’ have their own ideas, which come to fruition with the kidnapping of three teenagers, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sulu). This is not for sexual abuse, as seems likely at first, but to provide a possible and totally controlling 24th personality with ‘sacred food’.
Did you get all that?
In Shyamalan’s hands – and with the help of a uniformly superb cast – this all screens better than it reads, making for an enthralling and tense psychological thriller. There are also several layers where childhood abuse and the manner in which the mind tries to protect itself from the results of traumatic incidents are put under the ‘scope.
Then something odd happens: the film goes from being one kind of exercise into a completely different one. I couldn’t but be reminded of the last 20 minutes of Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), which explored similar territory.
There reaches a point where you feel that Shyamalan should have stopped but instead just keeps going.
And then he really drops it on you by tying things up in a way that is audacious in the extreme, given that he is relying on the viewer recalling his other work.
But it left this viewer ecstatic and looking forward with enthusiasm to what the filmmaker has planned for the future.
McAvoy deserves mention for at least some kind of award, if only to see which of his personalities goes up to receive it. In particular his portrayal of a nine-year old child is downright disturbing. Especially when he’s dancing. Jesus.
It is great to see Betty Buckley, who plays the psychiatrist, again. I remember her most for her role as the sexy gym teacher all those years ago in de Palma’s Carrie.
And – after her performance in Robert Eggers’s wonderful The Witch last year — Anya Taylor-Joy is developing into a really intense and intriguing young actress.
All in all, I hope that Split is a resounding success (and with a budget of a mere €9 million and already grossing around €150, I guess it is); because I really want to see more of Barry, Patricia, Dennis, Hedwig and all the other personalities…
…who are only protecting Kevin.