Split: A dude with TOO much personality

Split directed by M. Night ShyamalanSplit directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Split directed by M. Night ShyamalanOver the years, there have been any number of films that have dealt with lead characters who suffer with what the layman might term “split personality.” Putting aside all the many iterations of the Jekyll & Hyde story, in 1957, audiences were given both Lizzie, in which Eleanor Parker played a woman with three distinct personalities, and, five months later, the more well-known The Three Faces of Eve, in which Joanne Woodward played a woman with the exact same predicament. In 1960, theatergoers were shocked out of their showers via their introduction to Tony Perkins’ Norman Bates, a young man who was also his own mother, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The situation was played for laughs in 1963’s The Nutty Professor, with Jerry Lewis portraying the hapless Prof. Julius Kelp AND his alter ego, the Dean Martin-like Buddy Love. But you would have to take all the preceding alter egos, and perhaps toss in later films such as 1992’s Raising Cain (in which John Lithgow sported three personalities) and 2007’s Sybil (in which the titular character, played by Tammy Blanchard, possessed no fewer than 16!), to exceed the number of disparate types to be found living inside one person, in M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent offering, 2017’s Split.

The film introduces us to a most unusual character … or should I say, “horde” of characters (no wonder the news media later refers to this personage as “The Horde”!). He is Kevin Wendell Crumb — brought to remarkable life by the Scottish actor James McAvoy — a Philadelphia native (as have been so many of the director/writer’s previous lead characters) who suffers with the condition known as DID: dissociative identity disorder. As a matter of fact, his psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has identified no fewer than 23 (!) personalities residing inside his noggin, each waiting patiently in his or her “chair” for a chance to step forward “into the light.” (And if this setup strikes some as being a bit improbable, I might add here that the real-life Eve evinced a full 22 personalities, and required a good 17 years of psychotherapy as a consequence!)

Somehow, Crumb has managed to live a fairly low-key life in modern society, even managing to hold down a job as a dress designer, thanks to the talents of one of his many personae, Barry. But following a prank of a sexual nature perpetrated on him by a group of randy schoolgirls, Kevin snaps, and is soon seen kidnapping three young women in the parking lot of the King of Prussia Mall. Those three women — Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — are incarcerated in some kind of underground bunker, while their captor intimidates them as successive personalities of his step into the light. Thus, we get to see McAvoy essay a good half dozen of Kevin’s 23 inner personae; for example, the 9-year-old Hedwig, the dressy Patricia, and the unflappably in-command Dennis. But Dr. Buckley grows increasingly concerned with her patient, when Dennis/Barry informs her that a 24th personality, which he terms “The Beast,” is soon to emerge. And since the good doctor knows that each of Kevin’s personalities can effectively transform his body chemistry as it enters the light, there is every reason for concern … especially since this Beast is said to be extremely large, very fast, very powerful, able to climb walls (!) and, as it turns out, somewhat cannibalistic as regards dietary requirements…

Split was produced on a budget of a mere $9 million and proved to be a box office smash, bringing in around $280 million all told. And there was very good reason for this. The film is a remarkably suspenseful affair, and every attempt that our trio of young prisoners makes to escape from their cell is a nerve-racking one. The three young actresses on display here are all terrific, especially Taylor-Joy. Her Casey character is both beautiful and interesting, and the director shows us her history in flashbacks that allow us to see why she is so well suited to survive in this horrendous situation (her father had trained her in outdoor shooting and survival skills), and why she is the introverted young lady that she is today (a bit of sexual molestation on the part of a skeevy uncle would do that for anyone!). The film makes good use of its autumnal scenery — Philly and its surroundings have never looked more gorgeous — and Shyamalan’s script is a clever one. But best of all is McAvoy, whose sextuple performance is practically Oscar-worthy. Not since Alex Guinness in 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which the beloved British actor essayed no fewer than nine distinct roles, and perhaps Peter Sellers in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove, in which the actor gave the world three entirely different and truly memorable characters, has a performer attempted such a feat, AND brought it off as successfully.

And for those who are wondering if Shyamalan once again pulls the rug out from beneath his audience’s expectations with one of his patented surprise endings, the answer is a decided “yes”; an ending that sets the viewer up for a sequel that also ties into another of the director’s previous films. I don’t think I’m giving anything away here at this late date by saying that this sequel is to be entitled Glass, and that it will be coming out in January 2019. Personally, it is a film for which I cannot wait…

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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One comment

  1. I saw the trailers for this and I was knocked out by McAvoy.

    And the title of the next film isn’t a spoiler unless you’ve read about the film someplace else.

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