Review: Split

Three young girls stand frozen in the middle of a featureless room while staring at the figure that fills the doorframe. A mix of fear and confusion has washed over their faces.

split-2016-movie-horrornews-net_The man who spoke to them moments earlier, Dennis, has changed and is no longer wearing his glasses and grey button-up shirt.

The figure in front of them is instead sporting a red turtleneck sweater, a gold pendant and has donned a pair of high heels.

She offers an unnerving smile through pursed lips.

Her name is Patricia – and she and another 23 other personalities are the antagonist of M. Night Shyamalan’s new supernatural thriller, Split.

Kevin, played by James McEvoy, suffers from dissociative personality disorder and is struggling to maintain control of his many personalities.

However, matters take a dark turn when it’s revealed one of Kevin’s personalities has kidnapped a group of young girls and is holding them prisoner.

Captives Claire and Marcia use their time in isolation to plan their escape, however fellow prisoner Casey (Anya-Taylor Joy) realises it may take more cunning to avoid their captor’s nefarious intentions.

It may feel like the description reveals too much – but this hand is shown remarkably early in the piece.

Really it’s a sensible attempt from Shyamalan to bottleneck the thrill of unpredictability that the film is chasing.

You know what to expect early – it’s then a matter of when the thrills will arrive. The haphazard appearance of Kevin’s different personalities – and their own seldom-realised agendas – creates palpable tension.

McEvoy’s performance is vital in reaching the fever pitch, and he’s at his career best playing his own personal ensemble cast.

The actor effortlessly transitions from flamboyant fashion designer, to maternal older woman, to an 11-year-old boy bullied by the other personalities.

His character kaleidoscope is accented by an understated performance from Betty Buckley as Kevin’s trusted psychologist, Dr Karen Fletcher.

The good doctor’s awareness of when to prod and when to pull away during their therapy sessions make for some tense moments. Both move their pieces across the metaphorical chessboard pretending the outcome of the game isn’t important. It’s easily some of the best stuff in the film.

It would be remiss to not touch on some of the controversies Shyamalan has addressed in the film. People won’t like the treatment of mental illness.

I won’t make presumptions about whether McEvoy is convincing as someone with dissociative personality disorder – however he proves his worth as a sublime character actor.

Some scenes have been described as psychological “torture porn”. There are two schools of thought when considering whether the scenes are relevant to building the tension of the narrative, or are just perverted shocks for the sake of it.

There’s also the question of Shyamalan’s recent track record as a writer-director.

The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were all critically panned, despite two of those films enjoying US$100 million-plus budgets.

It’s this lack of form which has left audiences more comfortable dipping a toe into the murky depths of M. Night’s dark science fiction motifs than diving in head-first.

However, if Shyamalan’s newest foray behind the lens proves anything, it’s that he seems more comfortable doing more with less.

Split cost US$9 million to make – a budget closer to that of a romantic comedy than a modern supernatural thriller.

The film is smart with locations, filmed expertly with fine attention to detail and the relatively small cast delivers. It’s an enjoyable – if predictable – romp.

However, it felt like the thriller equivalent to filling up on bread while at a steak restaurant – I left content, but it could have been so much more.

Three Stars

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