Twenty-three personalities (or alters) and a 24th one (the ego state that will take over them all) lurking in the shadows of cellar, waiting for the right time to emerge. Meet Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) – the main person of interest in M Night Shyamalan's Split.
The movie begins simply. Three teenage girls get kidnapped from a parking lot after a birthday party and they wake up in a cellar. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) haven't the faintest idea what they are dealing with, but they are petrified.
The fear is justified: Not only have they been kidnapped, they also do not know who they are confronted with at any given time of their ordeal. Four of Kevin's 'alter' personalities visit the girls in turns – Barry (the protective personality that decides which alter gets to be in the light), Patricia (a rather creepy, but nice lady who makes sure the girls are fed), Dennis (he likes watching young girls dance naked, has OCD and violent tendencies) and Hedwig (a renegade nine-year-old who likes listening to Kanye West).
Barry is the one who controls which of the several alters of Kevin get to be 'in the light'.
Dennis kidnapped them, Patricia makes sure they are fed and tells the girls that Dennis cannot touch them because they are meant for a 'higher purpose', Hedwig lets slip bits of information about the Beast who the girls will be sacrificed to, and Barry writes an urgent mail to Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) asking for a meeting. Barry keeps Dennis and Patricia away from it at the beginning of the story.
Confused? Don't be
The four alters introduced to you so far, and the fifth that emerges at the end of the movie – the elusive and almost supernatural Beast – are all manifestations of Kevin's dissociated personality states. The alters manifest themselves singularly, but are acutely aware of the others' powers and traits (like Hedwig tells the girls that Dennis and Patricia have asked him to not talk to them).
In more 'clinical' terms – “When in control, each personality state, or alter, may be experienced as if it has a distinct history, self-image and identity. The alters' characteristics – including name, reported age and gender, vocabulary, general knowledge, and predominant mood – contrast with those of the primary identity.”
Dr Fletcher introduces us to Kevin's problem early on in the movie so as it is not hard for the audience to draw some sense out of it all. Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), or what was previously called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD).
DID has been defined as “a mental disorder characterised by at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities or dissociated personality states that alternately show in a person's behaviour, accompanied by memory impairment for important information not explained by ordinary forgetfulness.”
However, this is a Shyamalan flick, rules can be bent. There is no memory impairment in Kevin. It almost feels like all the 23 alters are preparing in synchronised unision for the Beast to come to the light.
Childhood traumas & scars
Shyamalan, through Dr Flecther, connects Kevin's DID back to his father abandoning him in a train car (perhaps the reason as to why the alters believe that the Beast is hidden inside one) and mental and physical abuse he was subjected by his OCD-addled mother.
We rarely get to see Kevin and catch him only in glimpses – probably the longest we get to see of him is when Casey calls out his full name to bring him 'into the light'. And when he does appear, Kevin asks Casey to kill him.
Kevin is the primary identity and can be understood as the one who – 'carries the individual's given name and is passive, dependent, guilty and depressed'. Kevin has no control over any of the 24 alters, he is aware that he has a 'problem' – but he can do dismally little about it.
Childhood trauma is what caused Kevin to split, but it is also what saves Casey from the gory fate Claire and Marcia meet in the jaws of the Beast. Clearly, no two personalities deal with trauma – sexual, mental or physical – in the same way.
Beyond the realm of science?
Split might make you guffaw in disbelief after you are done being shaken and scared and have time to retrospect in a bright, warm room with hot chocolate. Could a person possibly have 24 personalities?
Psychology does not say they can't.
Can a person display superhuman strength while one of the alters is 'in the light'?
Did you know that MPD and DIDs are often mistaken as demonic possessions where patients have displayed unnatural 'talents'? Did we scare you again?
I asked a psychological counsellor the first two questions – she did not deny either, adding rather simply that they (science and medicine) just did not know enough about DID yet. And that is pretty much what Dr Fletcher also says.
Why you must watch Split
Watch Split for James McAvoy – he scares the bejesus out of you. The subtle manifestations of changes on his face as he slips in and out of alters is terrifying. They make your skin crawl and hands feel clammy. You sit through the movie feeling strangely cold despite a warm jumper and a thick cardigan on you.
McAvoy pushes Split firmly into Shymalan's 'Wow' list (much needed after duds like Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, After Earth) saving the film from being a teenage chick-thriller. He plays his roles with such conviction that you will start believing that it is all, in fact, real. And that's when it gets scarier still.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the girl with a dark past but with nerves of steel, and Betty Buckley as Dr Fletcher – the only person who succeeds in making Kevin appear as a human being who desperately needs to be rescued from his alters and not a construct drawn up to make this thriller work – are solid in their roles. Also, keep your eyes peeled for Shyamalan's little cameo.