Film directors have been making cameos in their films ever since Alfred Hitchcock first made a cameo in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog in 1927. Hitchcock, who can be seen sitting at a newsroom desk with his back to the camera in the aforementioned picture, would go on to make cameos in at least 37 of his films. Not a bad run for something that started all because of a shortage in available film extras.
I think having a director make a cameo in the film they’re directing seems to be more of a sign of prestige these days. Everyone from Spike Lee and John Carpenter to Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone has followed in Hitchcock’s footsteps. (How perfect would that statement have been had Hitch cameoed in 39 of his films? The 39 Steps, get it?) Spotting the director has become synonymous to a cinematic version of Where’s Waldo? these days, as eagle-eyed observers revel in being able to spot them in the most unlikely of places.
One such director who is renowned for making cameos in the majority of his films is M. Night Shyamalan. Split, his latest film from Universal Studios, can be added to this list. He does make a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance, but I won’t ruin the fun of where to spot him for you. It’s a speaking role and it’s far easier to spot than his cameo in The Happening in which he was the voice on the phone that Zooey Deschanel was seen talking to throughout the film.
Another thing just about all of Shyamalan’s films have in common is their unpredictable twist at the end. In some cases, the twist works very well (Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense), while in other cases (The Village, The Happening), the twist leaves you with an unsatisfactory feeling afterward. But that’s half the fun of going to watch an M. Night Shyamalan movie – not knowing which category “the twist” will fall under and the desire to be one “in the know” so you can intelligibly contribute to the discussion about said film with your colleagues the next day. Love him or hate him, M. Night Shyamalan is a recognizable brand and a bona fide box office draw. So, under which category did the twist for Split fall for me? The honest answer is I’m still split on that one (pun intended).
Starring James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, Split tells the story of a man suffering from multiple personality disorder who kidnaps three teenaged girls when a few of his sociopathic personalities decide to come out and play. The best thing about this film is unquestionably McAvoy playing the 24 various personalities inhabiting Kevin Wendell Crumb’s body – at times he’s a 9-year-old child named Hedwig who just wants to dance to his Kanye West albums, a feisty diabetic named Jade, a pervy guy named Dennis with glasses and a penchant for watching young girls dance, a fashionista named Barry, an intellectual named Orwell and a stern, religious zealot named Miss Patricia. He plays each role hauntingly convincingly, and at times, appropriately and alarmingly menacingly.
Actually, McAvoy is the main draw for my interest in this film. I adored him as a young Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies and as the beloved Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A role in which you can take on multiple personalities must be either an actor’s wet dream or worst nightmare. Rarely does a role require so much depth into so many different psyches that it must have been both physically and mentally demanding. Whoever decided to unleash McAvoy in the many roles of Split made an inspired choice. He’s quite capable of making you believe whichever persona he’s masquerading in at the time, and much like Hitchcock’s Norman Bates in Psycho, you can’t help but open a sympathetic heart to him. Did his horrible mother turn him into the twisted freak he is today?
The other thing I respected about this psychological thriller is its “less is more” approach. A lot of thrillers and horror movies alike focus on torture as a means to terrify their audience. McAvoy isn’t really seen torturing or abusing his kidnapped victims. Rather, he allows their terror to build within their own minds. First by the situation itself and the creepy, dismal underground bunker setting. And then their fear of the unknown resolution to their dilemma builds to a crescendo after they realize they’re not just dealing with one psycho but multiple psychos all trapped within the same capable body. The various personalities also taunt them throughout that someone dubbed “The Beast” is coming for them because they’re his “sacred food.” I also respected that the young women were seen at least attempting to fight back and reason out the situation with a little bit of patient plotting and critical thinking. (At times, anyway. And sometimes they’re just half-witted, half-dressed teenagers in another horror movie.)
That’s not to say that Split isn’t without its problems. I found it a little hard to believe how easily the abduction itself took place. If sliding into a stranger’s car in a crowded public parking lot is really that easy, kudos to my paranoid self for always locking the door upon getting into my car. I also found it a little hard to believe how naïve Kevin’s psychiatrist (Buckley) could be. This woman should know more than anyone else what Kevin is capable of – and all of the classic warning signs for help are blatantly right there in front of her and she’s maddeningly slow to react. I also could’ve done without Casey’s backstory of abuse told throughout the flashbacks.
I feel like M. Night Shyamalan was trying to convey a broader message about how society views mental disorders, but maybe he fell a little short of his lofty goal. It’s far from being another Psycho (I’m not entirely convinced that Shyamalan is worthy of comparison to Hitchcock), that is to say groundbreaking in the genre, but it does pose several interesting questions. Are people who suffer from such disorders really broken in the sense that many of us write them off? In many ways, they’ve seemingly tapped into utilizing the human brain in more far-reaching ways than that of the average person. Can a person with a multiple personality disorder really change their complete body chemistry with each personality? Are people who suffer from such disorders always born with it or can it be a coping mechanism created by the mind after one has experienced great trauma?
I’m not sure that Split will scare you, but it might make you think. And perhaps the biggest twist of all is another unexpected but fun cameo at the end (although I’m not convinced that it made 100% sense to me). Final verdict: it’s one of M. Night Shyamalan’s better films but still not his strongest to date.
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