Betty Buckley in Tight Squeeze in M. Night Shyamalan Blockbuster Thriller Split
By: Ellis Nassour
After the roll-out of studio prestige films from just after Halloween through New Year’s, so they qualify for nominations, you don’t expect much in the way of exciting films in January. Guess what? There’s always an exception. And this January it’s Split (Universal/Blumhouse). It comes from the once shock-and-schlock horror master, two-time Oscar nominee M. Night Shyamalan (Director, Screenplay for The Sixth Sense; later Unbreakable, Signs, The Village).
Split, an edge-of-the-seat psychological whopper, undoubtedly Shyamalan’s best in years. It doesn’t hurt that it’s anchored by the extraordinary talent of Scotsman James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class/Days of Future Past/Apocalypse; Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby series; TV’s Watership Down, Shameless).
Once the train leaves the station – or, more aptly, the car leaves the parking lot, the action is fast and furious, off-putting, and, probably unintentional, sometimes hilarious. It’s a jumbo bucket of buttered popcorn and large iced-cold Coke jolter.
McAvoy plays a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder. Within his one body, there are 23 personalities ranging from a small boy with a taste for hip-hop to a conniving, albeit well-mannered, prim and proper woman intent on ruling the brood.
The actor, in an acting master class performance, weaves in and out of these vastly different personalities, sometimes in the same scene. They are Kevin Wendell Crumb, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, Orwell, and Jade. Interestingly, some are actually at war with each other.
Also starring is two-time Tony nominee and winner as Feature Actress for Cats, and cabaret star and recording artist Betty Buckley co-stars in her first film since 2011. [There were a number of TV guest roles in between.] Her last big movie outing was 2008’s not exactly well-received Shayamalan’s The Happening.
In session visits with specialist Dr. Fletcher, Buckley, the personalities manifest themselves. However, it’s sadly too late when she becomes aware of their controlling, Hulk-like entity The Beast, whom she later gets quite a tight squeeze from.
For reasons we’re never privy to, one of the personalities sets the action in motion by kidnapping three Philadelphia girls – Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula – whom he doesn’t seem to wish to harm. He keeps them holed up in a maze of warrens in the bowels of what appears to be worthy of the once-infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, which still sits right in the middle of the City of Brotherly Love. What makes the plot riveting is how the girls work their wiles on the personalities in an attempt to get one of them to help them escape.
It turns out Buckley is not only a fan of writer/director Shayamalan but also a fan of horror films.
“I like psychological thrillers where you have no idea what will happen next,” she says, “when the director or writer is ahead of you and you’re only catching up as the story’s being told. There are scary things I don’t like, but Split is the kind of scary thing I like best.”
She says that working with Shayamalan on The Happening “where I played a crazy lady, was so much fun. He’s a gifted filmmaker and has quite a dedicated team he works with in Philadelphia. Many have done all of his films, so they’re like a big family. Their closeness creates a wonderful atmosphere in which to work.”
Buckley can’t praise Split’s star enough. “Not only was he a joy to work with, but his is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.”
She says Dr. Fletcher was a perfect fit. “I’ve studied human psychology and been in my own analysis, and the subject of multiple personalities has always fascinated me. This was something I knew about. I was overjoyed with Night told me he wrote the part with me in mind.
“Playing a psychologist who’s on a journey with her patient was something I felt I’d be a good advocate for,” she continues. “There’re a myriad of personalities in each of us. Maybe not the way there are for those with this disorder, but we have a different personality for social interactions, for family, for your best friend. We put on faces for different situations.”
Split’s myriad personalities for the most part have dark sides. “Don’t we all? Jung called it ‘The Shadow.’ It’s tough to face parts of yourself you don’t like. Our mission is to be conscious of that, so you can be responsible for it. You have to own all of your emotions.”
Buckley, who’s had a career where she’s excelled on stage, screen, and TV, became an East Coast/West Coast hopper. She starred on Broadway in the original 1776 and Pippin; then, became a regular on the seminal hit TV series Eight Is Enough (1971-1981. Fortune surely shown on her when she was cast as Grizabella in Cats.
She made her film debut as phys ed teacher Miss Collins in Brian de Palma’s screen adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976), and over a decade later starred in short-lived Broadway musical based on the film.
Buckley replaced Bernadette Peters in Song and Dance, starred in the original Mystery of Edwin Drood, and was a stellar Norma in Sunset Boulevard following Glenn Close. She was last on Broadway in the musical Triumph of Love (1997). She co-starred in the film adaptation of Horton Foote’s Tender Mercies, then went on to a season in the raw prison series OZ, where she claimed to be the birth mother of murderous Ryan O’Reily.
Shayamalan has big plans. His next project will be a sequel to his 2000 superhero thriller Unbreakable. Buckley says if she gets the call, she’ll be Philadelphia bound. There’s a hint at the very end of Split of what’s to come in a surprise cameo by one of the director’s loyal stars.