Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Horror/Thriller, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Greg, we’re often split in our opinions about a movie.
We meet three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Claire and Marcia and the “cool” girls and Casey is a loner who frequently gets into trouble at school. The girls are in a car, ready to be driven home by one of their fathers, when a man named Kevin (James McAvoy ) commandeers the vehicle, kidnapping the girls and locking them in a subterranean room.
Meanwhile, Kevin is meeting with his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who has been receiving frantic emails from Kevin’s alter ego Barry. Dr. Fletcher’s suspicions are raised when Kevin denies sending the messages. In a later session Kevin describes a new personality called “The Beast” which has the powers of many powerful animals. Fletcher thinks The Beast is a metaphorical character, but we know better.
Greg, how interesting that we are devoting our 2017 movie reviews to the importance of character transformation in storytelling, and lo and behold we are presented with a movie about a man with dissociative identity disorder. Kevin routinely transforms among two dozen different personal identities. We’ll get to that later.
First, let me say how surprisingly pleased I was with this movie. Based on the trailer, I didn’t expect much. The film turns out to be far more than a formulaic teenage screamer/thriller movie with the usual false scares and predictable slasher villain. Split is a psychologically fascinating film that serves as a sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s very underrated Unbreakable. We’re treated to a movie that makes us think about the very purpose of the hero’s journey, which is to take us on a path that will bring us great pain yet make us better, stronger people in the end.
I agree. Split was an uncommon thriller. The photography and direction seemed stilted, almost amateurish. But the performance by James McAvoy switching between multiple personalities, often in the same scene, really sold the story.
The three girls represent three different types of victims. Claire is the natural leader and believes that her Tai Kwon Do lessons will be enough to overpower Kevin. Marcia is the follower who looks to the other girls to decide how to proceed. And Casey wants to wait and see what Kevin is all about. Casey has experience with predators since her uncle ritually molested her as a child. It’s an interesting comparison of personalities.
I see this film as a tale of two heroes, Kevin and Casey. They’re both emotionally broken from abuse, outsiders doing their best to deal with their pain. Dr. Fletcher almost serves as the narrator of the story, telling us how the broken among us have a head start in becoming their best, superhuman selves. Kevin is slowly transforming into “the beast”, an indescribably strong, powerful mutant who needs people to eat. Casey’s transformation is brought about by her ordeal as Kevin’s captive.
The entire story is based (loosely) on the true and inspiring theory of post-traumatic growth in the field of psychology. The idea behind PTG is that the horrid experiences that traumatize us can serve as grist for the transformative mill. That which does not kill us may indeed make us stronger, better people. Research studies are confirming this phenomenon, giving many abuse victims great hope for a better future.
While Kevin undergoes a physical transformation, Casey undergoes an emotional one. Kevin, as The Beast, kills the other two girls. But when Kevin realizes that Casey is also a victim of abuse, he lets her go. He’s only interested in the “impure” girls, not the “pure” Casey. Frantly, I’m confused by Kevin’s definition of pure or impure. But, at any rate, after Casey has survived The Beast, she finds a new resolve to stand up to her abusive uncle. She is no longer a victim.
Split is a surprisingly cerebral thriller that takes the message of the hero’s journey to a superheroic extreme. We learn that emotionally broken people are more highly evolved than the non-broken among us. It’s a theme with biblical origins (“the last shall go first”) and it has psychological validity in theories of post traumatic growth. “We are what we believe we are,” our hero Kevin proclaims, summing up the film’s message of mind over matter and mind transforming matter. James McAvoy turns in an astounding performance and M. Night Shyamalan has produced a winner of a movie. I award Split 4 Reels out of 5.
Our two heroes, Kevin and Casey, go on remarkable heroes journeys. Many of the most searingly painful stages of their journeys occur earlier in their lives and are shown in brief flashbacks. We are thus treated to the final stages of the journey during which our heroes are on the precipice of great change. Our heroes are complex, almost anti-hero in the case of Kevin and tortured in the case of both of them. Their journey of growth is unconventional yet inspiring. I give them 5 Hero points out of 5.
The transformation of our two heroes is the true star of this film. Kevin’s transformative journey has been ongoing for years, whereas Casey’s is brought to fruition via her captivity. Our two heroes’ transformations are physical, mental, and emotional in nature. We describe these types of transformations in our book, Reel Heroes & Villains. The transformations in this film are dramatic, surprising, and inspiring. I give them 5 Transformative points out of 5.
I agree, Scott. Split is an exciting thriller and a nice addition to M. Night Shyamalan’s catalog. Aside from some stylistic choices in cinematography, it was a well-conceived and executed film. However, I was unhappy with the epilog which brought back Bruce Willis as David Dunn from Unbroken. There wasn’t anything that tied the two films together except one line at the tail. It smacks of commercialism and an attempt to revive interest in the older film. I give Split 3 Reels out of 5.
I agree again that we have a strong pairing here, but I wouldn’t call Kevin a hero. Surely Casey is the hero and Kevin is that antagonist. Casey wants to escape and Kevin opposes that goal. Casey is stronger than her two counterparts. And it is her past experience with abuse that makes her more likely to survive her ordeal than her unlucky friends. I give Casey 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The transformations in this film are on the one hand physical, for Kevin, and emotional for Casey. We watch Kevin transform from a splintered personality to a terrible “horde” who eats flesh for delight. It’s a gruesome change. Casey starts out already stronger than her peers. But we learn that she wasn’t strong enough to fend off her molesting uncle. But by the end of the film, her experience with Kevin made her strong enough to stand up for herself. If she could face Kevin, then she surely could face her uncle. I give these transformations 4 out of 5 points.