When thinking about Split, the new horror/psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, I keep thinking about magic tricks. I’m a huge sucker for magician shows and the like, and Split is a magic trick unto itself, a kind of trick I don’t think I’ve ever met before. Sure, Shyamalan is known for his films having a twist at the end, but they’re mostly genteel, helping you make sense of what’s come before. But never have I seen a twist redefine a movie so completely without remorse or giving you any more time within the film to realize its repercussions. It destroys every preconceived thought you may have had and turns its existence into something totally different. And in that, Shyamalan has probably pulled off the greatest cinematic magic trick I think I’ve ever encountered.
In the terms of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, there are three stages of a magic trick; the first of these stages is The Pledge, in which the magician shows you something normal that gets you at least interested in what he’s about to do. With Shyamalan’s Split, we start off with a feeling of unease as he immediately starts his film off with a dolly-zoom, the kind of shot Alfred Hitchcock made popular in his film Vertigo. It’s a technique where the subject of the camera stays static in the frame while the camera itself physically moves backward against the zoom lens moving in on the subject, slowly and subtly making the subject feel suddenly dwarfed in their surroundings.
It’s a perfect metaphor and foreshadowing for what happens to Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Claire’s bestie Marcia (Jessica Sula) after Claire’s birthday party, when Claire’s father is attacked before the girls are incapacitated and kidnapped. Standard kidnap thriller stuff so far, right? You’ve got an intimidating fellow by the name of Dennis (James McAvoy), shown instantly to be a methodical, dangerous, and deliberate menace. He’s possessed of different stuff than your usual kidnapper in these kinds of stories.
Thus starts the second stage of the magic trick: The Turn. Priest defines it as such: “The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking.” McAvoy gives his greatest performance to date, revealing he is not just Dennis, but flamboyant dress designer Barry, precocious 9-year-old Hedwig, and stern British housemother Patricia. These are only four of the 23 personalities which live inside their host body, which belongs to a man named Kevin who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID); unfortunately, it seems that Dennis, Hedwig, and Patricia are taking over.
McAvoy’s performance is, in and of itself, much of the magic of Split. He weaves seamlessly between Kevin’s personalities, switching between them almost nonchalantly and without warning, lending a terrifying unpredictability to his character. Facing off opposite him is Casey, who’s also damaged, but in her own specific way. Her reactions and uncanny ability to deal with some of Kevin’s personalities make you think she might have endured something similar before, the story of which gets told via flashbacks and plays into a gargantuan turning point near film’s end. The two other girls are as brave as they can be, but it’s a kind of bravery with nothing behind it, as you get the sense that the worst thing to happen in lives like Claire’s and Marcia’s was that the local fashion store was out of a dress they might have wanted.
Anya Taylor-Joy breathes subdued life into Casey, giving her a restrained wisdom and strength; these characteristics are what keep Casey in Patricia’s good graces and draw Hedwig and Dennis to her. Her general, all-around, “roll with it” persona also makes Hedwig a little sad, as he says there’s something coming for the three girls – something horrible and unlike anything anyone has seen before. “The Beast,” they call it. This, my friends, is where the last stage of the magic trick, The Prestige, comes into play – it’s the third act, where everything gets turned up to eleven, the windows break and the glass goes flying. This is when the story ventures into uncharted waters, where you’re unsure if you could even guess how the film is going to end.
Shyamalan fills his frames with suffocating dread, thanks to cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who also recently photographed the surprise horror hit It Follows. Gioulakis employs achingly slow and static photography to capture moments in their entirety, keeping us on the edges of our seats as we anticipate Dennis or Patricia’s next move, or the actions the girls are willing to take to stay alive and escape. Throughout the film, Shyamalan’s hand stays steadily on the rudder, never overplaying any given scene for realism’s sake, even when the film goes straight into the impossible. There is wild purpose to this film, and Shyamalan makes sure every maddening second is spent ensuring that purpose sticks.
Without revealing its greatest secret, Split relies on the unexpected and the rejection of the ordinary to make its statement. It’s a thrilling look at the ways multiple personalities take over this particular person – which in no way should be taken as gospel truth about how people with DID suffer. Understandable concern has been raised about this film’s treatment of this disorder; however, this disorder is merely a means to an end, and what a hell of an end. When taken in its proper context, you will realize Kevin’s affliction carries with it all the hallmarks of a brilliant character in the making, and what it’s going to take to fight what he becomes.