M. Night Shyamalan has always been an enigma wrapped in a mystery. He burst onto the scene as a visionary genius of sorts with his 1999 hit The Sixth Sense, followed strongly by the clever Unbreakable in 2000.
It gets interesting after that point.
The love-it-or-hate-it Signs was next for the director, and it’s been sort of downhill from there for him, at least in terms of reviews. His films since Signs such as The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening have been largely dismissed, if not ridiculed.
That’s why I thought I should give him another chance. I hadn’t seen any of his work since Signs – which I actually liked – and this latest one, Split, sounded more intense than anything he’d done before.
Split follows a man with multiple personality disorder – he has 23 distinct personalities – who kidnaps three girls.
The movie jumps into the action immediately. Three teenage girls are at a birthday party, and the father of one of them gives them a ride home. After the girls get in the car but before the father does, a man comes out of nowhere and knocks the dad out and hops in the car himself.
At first, the girls think the man has just gotten into the wrong car, but it quickly becomes apparent that this was no mistake.
The man – whose “real” name seems to be Kevin but who goes by many names throughout the movie due to all the personalities – keeps the girls locked in a dingy, windowless room, planning to do . . . well, it’s not quite clear exactly what the plan is (at least not yet), but the girls are trapped and afraid, and the outlook is dim.
It doesn’t take long for the three of them – probably about 15 years old (one was close to getting her license earlier in the movie) – to figure out that something is off about this guy.
Soon Claire, the outcast among the group, realizes that one of Kevin’s personalities, that of a 9-year-old boy, could possibly be helpful to them – he isn’t violent or cruel, and seems very stupid and impressionable. He – as Hedwick, the 9-year-old – tells Claire that the personalities can’t talk to each other, giving Claire the idea to talk Hedwick into letting them escape.
As you might imagine, it isn’t quite that simple.
One of the underlying mysteries of the movie surrounds a 24th personality. Sporadically throughout the film, during sessions with a therapist, Kevin talks about having yet another personality, one that nobody has met. He calls this one The Beast, and he says The Beast is much bigger and stronger than he, Kevin, is, and is very bad.
And that’s about as much plot as I’d like to give away at this point – any more risks really giving away key elements of the story.
Instead, I’ll use this space to wonder what the purpose of this movie is, as I couldn’t shake the feeling the whole time I was watching it that the director was trying to say something, trying to prove something here.
It’s almost as though Shyamalan has made Split to prove to the skeptical public that dissociative identity disorder is, in fact, a real disorder, and a potentially very dangerous one.
Many scenes feature the therapist making statements supporting the validity of the disorder, saying that there have been many cases of a single personality having high cholesterol or a food allergy while the rest do not.
Split has quite a few scenes and lines of dialogue that, to me, seemed like a director forcing an agenda on an unsuspecting audience. By the end, I found myself saying, “I get it, he has this condition and it’s very serious and must be properly treated.”
Ultimately, this was an entertaining and suspenseful film. I guess I was just hoping Shyamalan would return to his vintage form here, but you can’t always get what you want.