M. Night Shyamalan was the golden boy of Hollywood in the early 2000s. He net multiple Oscar nominations for his seminal breakout, The Sixth Sense, and went on to more box office success with mid-budget thrillers like Unbreakable, Signs and The Village. It then turned out that the emperor had no clothes: his self-indulgent fairy tale, Lady in the Water, was the first sign that the director’s head was beginning to disappear up his ass. A string of dreadful (albeit successful) films led him from homicidal botany to whitewashed anime adaptation to bloated sci-fi with Hollywood’s most misguided father-son pair. It wasn’t until Shyamalan paired with bargain-basement producer, Jason Blum, that he started showing signs of life again. So now we have Split.
Split is a case-in-point of why some films deserve a higher budget. After having worked in the studio system for most of his career, Shyamalan has developed a taste for big ideas that need a lot of explaining. As a filmmaker, it his responsibility to show these ideas playing themselves out visually. When your movie is hamstrung by a small budget, though, you’re left with little more than a couple of actors in a room, looking at each other. This is a major problem with Split, a horror film with quite a bit on its mind but few ways to express it.
Kevin (James McAvoy) has disassociative identity disorder, meaning he has a total of 23 personalities vying for dominance in his brain. Some of these personae are gentle, like Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy with an affinity for Kanye West music, or Barry, a sensitive fashion designer who enjoys talking things through with their psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Other aspects of Kevin are not so nice, like Patricia, a prim but unstable older woman, and Dennis, a brute wracked by obsessive compulsive disorder who enjoys watching young women dance naked. It is under the influence of this latter personality that Kevin kidnaps three teenaged girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Worst of all, an even more dangerous personality, nicknamed the Beast, is about to emerge in Kevin.
No one could ever accuse Shyamalan of being a responsible filmmaker. He is fascinated by people whose psychological quirks set them apart from society and frequently lead to their downfall. This time he’s chosen a disorder that one can actually diagnose, even if it is controversial. Split plays with the idea that these conflicting personalities can grant their owner abilities that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have. This leads to a particularly ludicrous denouement that nevertheless feels like a logical extension of the movie’s premise, silly though it may be. Split teases you with exploitation cinema-style window dressing–a dirty basement setting, bug-eyed performances, nubile ladies in danger–but ultimately has trouble following through. It seems that the purse strings were a bit too tight.
You certainly can’t blame McAvoy, who is having a field day here. He is easily the best part of the film, trying on wildly different accents and physical tics to distinguish his various personalities. This is the sort of role that actors dream about, one that essentially presents them two dozen cakes and they’re required only to eat the frosting. He knows exactly what kind of movie he is in and doesn’t bother to class it up at all, which is the right decision. His go-for-broke performance gives the film a shot to the arm almost enough to compensate for the fact that it tells far more often than it shows. This is where the movie loses a lot of points.
Filmmakers use the narrative device of the Psychiatrist as a crutch when they can’t actually demonstrate what their characters are feeling. This means we get a lot of scenes of McAvoy talk-talk-talking with Buckley, explaining all the internal conflict he may or may not be experiencing over his mental issues. These scenes are of far less value than watching Kevin-as-Hedwig grooving to hip-hop or Kevin-as-Patricia preparing a sandwich in the most stressful possible way. When Shyamalan hands the reins over to McAvoy and lets the actor evoke his character’s madness, the film is far more effective. We are here to watch a classy performer lose his marbles, not to listen to a seminar in psychiatry.
What of the trio of imprisoned young women? Shyamalan forgets about two of them rather quickly, disappearing from the story almost entirely, leaving Taylor-Joy as the Final Girl. The film really drops the ball with this character, as its attempts to give her a history of sexual abuse contribute nothing to her arc. Taylor-Joy, so impressive in last year’s The Witch, holds the screen well with McAvoy, playing the straight woman to his kooky madman, but she is ultimately wasted on this movie.
Shyamalan’s gotten a lot of second chances as a director, and Split does show that some of that potential remains in him. As a visual storyteller, Shyamalan is quite strong, but he is too susceptible to the temptations of his beloved twists, which he bends over backwards to achieve here. There is a moment during the credits that had me LOLing IRL, not because of its cleverness but because it’s just that tortured. Shyamalan does see dead people: they’re the ghosts of his former success.
Horror | Universal Pictures