SPLIT (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)
Ever since his big breakthrough, THE SIXTH SENSE back in 1999, I’ve been exceedingly mixed on the movies of M. Night Shyamalan. There’s some effective filmmaking there, but too often I’ve been reminded me of a sketch from The Ben Stiller Show back in the early ‘90s called “Bad Twist Ending Theater.”
Even what many people consider his best work like UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS have made me say “meh.”
I know many people feel the same way especially because the man’s name had become a joke in the last decade amid a string of critical and box office flops (LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH).
There were even many instances of audiences laughing or groaning (or both) at the words “From the mind of M. Night Shyamalan” during trailers for his films.
But now Shyamalan appears to be making a comeback with lower budgeted productions like last year’s sleeper hit THE VISIT, and now this new scaled down thriller, SPLIT, both of which are collaborations with horror mogul Jason Blum (the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, PURGE, and INSIDIOUS series).
SPLIT concerns three teenage girls - Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – being abducted by a psychopath named Kevin (James McAvoy). The kicker here is that Kevin has 23 different personalities so the girls, who have been locked by him in a room in a basement somewhere, have to learn how to talk with each one.
Well, at least seven of his personalities as McAvoy’s Kevin mostly embodies the personas of the girls’ OCD-afflicted captor Dennis, the well-mannered yet still sinister Patricia, the hip-hop loving 9-year-old boy Hedwig, and several other less dominant characters named Orwell, Jade, Norma, and Hamlet.
The girls, headed by Taylor-Joy’s Casey who is clearly the one most likely to get out alive, learn from Kevin’s that there is a 24th persona called “The Beast” which is soon to arrive.
Meanwhile, Kevin (or is it Dennis?) visits his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but denies that anything is going on when she suspects that his late night emails are cries for help. Dr. Fletcher specializes in dissociative identity disorder despite skepticism from the medical community (we see her participating in a video conference on Skype so that we can see how deep her knowledge of Kevin’s condition goes).
Casey tries to manipulate the innocent Hedwig so that the girls can make escape attempts, which result in them being separated in various rooms in what seems to be an abandoned mental institution with long hallways that lead to locked doors, endless boiler rooms, and supply closets.
Where it is that these girls is trapped is one of the film’s biggest mysteries, which I won’t spoil, but it completely keeps in line with the horror cliché that deranged killers often have access to a lot of property with seemingly endless square footage.
McAvoy is the major reason really to see this film as he gives a tour de force performance that serves each of this intensely creepy maniac’s multiple personalities. As the movie gets more and more convoluted in how it works elements of the supernatural into the mix, McAvoy never stops empowering a fearlessly unhinged presence. Never thought that suave, subdued Scottish dude in all those X-MEN movies could pull this sort of thing off.
However, the rest of the movie grew extremely tiresome in all of its tediously talky exposition (we get it, already! Kevin is two dozen completely different people all with different illnesses! Stop over explaining it!), the overused escape fake-outs, and predictable character arcs (Casey has flashbacks to a hunting trip with her father and a uncle who sexually abused her to, of course, inform us of the fire in her belly that will help her get out of this hellhole).
Taylor-Joy puts a lot of energy into her role as the film’s burgeoning heroine, so that’s another plus in its favor, but the movie is ultimately too transparent in its ambitions to be the truly terrifying experience it wants to be. That’s confirmed by its absurd ending (again, I won’t spoil), which has a very silly twist explanation (of course it does).
I also found Shyamalan’s visionary sense to be a bit sloppy – the film is plagued with badly framed shots, confusing cuts, and pacing that feels way off.
There is, however, a tag at the very end that I did like, and I bet the Shyamalan hardcore will adore. In fact, I predict that a lot of people will probably conclude that the final big reveal justifies the entire movie's existence. I can’t seriously say that I think that, but I confess that it was an exciting moment that made me rethink everything that had happened up to then.
And that’s a thing that even a non fan like me can concede – the guy’s no Hitchcock, but his work can often be masterful in the fine art of making moviegoers think twice.