SPLIT : Movie Review
2.5 stars out of 5 (above average)
Director & Writer : M Night Shyamalan
Cast : James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Multiple personality disorder is a million times more common in movies than in real life. When I once got a chance to do a psychology research project, I chose this entertaining phenomenon as the subject and then consulted the psychiatry department of of a large nodal hospital for cases. The staff doctor who took my question, neither laughed nor cried or grinned nor frowned, but rather informed me with a deadpan expression that the department had never seen a case of this famous mind-switching disorder.
That has not prevented Manoj Night Shyamalan from ransacking the bag of mental maladies and stuffing the entire caboodle into the mind of his new film's main character. SPLIT arrives with a plot premise that admittedly has spectacular potential for darkly ripe drama - " A man with twenty-three distinct personalities hiding inside him , kidnaps three girls..." Made on a budget of nine million dollars, the movie has crossed the crossed the hundred million mark in a fortnight since release, thus bringing Shyamalan roaring back into being Hollywood's darling, after the exile of a string of lackluster ventures.
Before I could blink, some hidden personality had installed me in the cinema seat for a first day Auckland show. I then sat there neither thrilled nor depressed nor fascinated nor bored, waiting for the movie to hit those quintessential M. Night Shyamalan notes of unsettling tranquility and eerie intensity. The first major hit of entertainment I got was after finishing the movie and enjoying a cold coffee at home.
Those three captured adolescent girls get holed up in a concrete dungeon, brought there by Kevin (played by James McAvoy), a man in his thirties. It turns out this crime has been committed not by Kevin but by Dennis, one of the "other" personalities in Kevin's body, who enjoys watching girls dancing au naturel. Eventually while keeping guard over them, Kevin's other personalities emerge - a small boy, a lady, a reasonable young man, an intense perverted counterpart et al. The girls try to haggle with the vulnerable boy, trying to escape but the dingy fortress which holds them offers little hope. Kevin usually visits a psychiatrist for therapy but this elderly lady senses something amiss when she keeps getting pleas for help from other personas in Kevin's body.
A teasing new spin the movie puts on the premise of dissociative identity disorder is to posit that the various personalities in this case have different biological traits - one persona needs insulin for diabetes control but others in the same body don't have this disease! We get news of a fearsome larger-than-life persona called 'The Beast' emerging to add further terror to the milieu, apart from advancing the inspiring idea that we can be anything we set our mind to become. Such frissons unfortunately are not fully cultivated because of the plot's paucity of imagination. It's great to have a single person assuming the proud titles of both director and writer as Shyamalan does, but a brilliant additional writer could certainly have done more to perk up this story.
The drama of the girls vis-a-vis the various 'split' personalities should have been a grand wicked circus ; what we see is more of a dark cat-'n'-mouse game seen in scores of late-night cable B-graders rather than a chart-topping uniquely plotted movie. The script also falls prey to racial stereotypes as in which character is the first to get "hit". The lady's persona in Kevin, which could have been used to act as a loving mother to the confused girls, or to use a young man's persona who persuasively flirts with them after the other personality has terrorized them, do not occur in the plot's imagination.
James McAvoy's performace is superb no doubt, with a rapidly switching crescendo in the climax, but it stops short of being the landmark achievement that lifts the entire movie - the fault lies more with the screenplay. Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as the moodily enigmatic girl Casey. One aspect where the screenplay actually does score some big brownie points is in the finale where a certain detail illustrates how a character's traumatic past salvages the future. Such niceties however are sparse.
I am glad Shyamalan is back in favour with audiences and critics. It's just that I'm not thrilled by the way he has done this.
First published in Indian Weekender February 2017
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