February 2021

Split (2017)

DIRECTOR: M. Night Shyamalan

CAST: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley


While it might be his first commercially successful movie in years, I have to go against the critical consensus and disagree that Split represents a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan.  I’ve never held the writer-director in that exalted esteem, but The Sixth Sense, Signs, and The Village were enjoyable, if flawed (the twist in The Sixth Sense, while a great “gotcha” surprise in the moment, makes less sense the more you think back on it), and in some ways Split embodies his troubled career: a movie with flashes of promise that goes off the rails, sputtering along in fits and starts until finally undone with a twist (such as it is) that turns the movie from a psychological thriller into something like a comic book supervillain origin story that doesn’t come to any true ending (due to Shyamalan’s intention to tie it in with 2000’s Unbreakable and set-up a third installment in what he is now calling a “trilogy”).  Whether Shyamalan’s franchise intentions come to pass remains to be seen (though Split‘s success at the box office might be enough to get the green light), but taken on its own, Split is as schizophrenic and half-formed as its villain’s identity.

We open with the abduction of three teenagers, outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) by a strange man (James McAvoy) whose real name is Kevin but whose mental identity is split (get it?) between twenty-three personalities, some of the more prominent of which include the lucid—comparatively speaking—Barry, who is alarmed at some of the other identities’ extreme actions and tries to intermittently gain control to expose them, childlike Hedwig, whom the girls might be able to manipulate into helping them escape, and the no-nonsense Dennis, who has allied with the female Miss Patricia because they both worship an unseen entity called The Beast who is waiting to emerge and dominate the rest (there’s also an effeminate fashion designer and a history buff, among others).  The girls don’t understand what this means for them—although Dennis drops ominous vague pronouncements about “sacred meat”—but they don’t intend to stick around to find out.  Meanwhile, Dennis tries to masquerade as the more reasonable Barry in his sessions with sympathetic psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who believes Kevin and his “disorder” might represent a breakthrough to a next step of human evolution (if you heard the last few words in the voice of Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, you’re on the right track of where this is heading).

Split starts out with promise.  The initial set-up, of the girls held hostage in Kevin’s underground dungeon-like lair, is nicely spare and no-frills, and there’s tension in their escape attempts, both by uncovering possible escape routes (like figuring out the newly-installed drywall is masking an air duct) and by Casey trying to manipulate the childish Hedwig into letting them go.  Some of the identities are potential allies—Hedwig and Barry—but each is only in “the light” (control of Kevin’s body) for so long (Barry continually sends e-mails trying to warn Dr. Fletcher, forcing Dennis to do damage control by showing up for appointments posing as Barry to reassure her that nothing is wrong).  If the movie had stayed within the spare, labyrinthine corridors the girls are trapped in, and focused on a psychological cat-and-mouse game, it might have had potential.

Alas, Split goes off the rails for a couple of reasons.  One is Shyamalan continually breaks the tension and opens up the claustrophobic setting by taking us along on Kevin’s interminable therapy sessions with Dr. Fletcher, which are momentum-killing exposition dumps spending far too much time elaborating on Kevin’s multiple personality disorder that could have been run through far more concisely.  Dr. Fletcher isn’t really a person, she’s a plot device and an expositional sounding board.  Another is that, after spending so much laborious screentime on at least a pretense of a pseudo-serious psychological character study, the movie takes a swerve into fantasy territory.  It’s okay to go in either direction, but trying to mash them up in one movie feels schizophrenic.  Shyamalan turning Split into essentially a pseudo comic book supervillain origin story and his sequel aspirations also leave Split without a true climax.  Along the way, there’s horror movie staples of characters doing dumb things, and laborious flashbacks that take forever to get to the point of revealing the root of Casey’s surly demeanor.  Somewhere down inside Split, there’s a small, intimate, taut, tense movie trying to get out, but it’s weighed down by too much goofiness.

James McAvoy, plainly viewing as his acting showcase, gleefully chews the scenery whiplashing between the curt Dennis, childish Hedwig, effeminate Barry, strutting around in skirts and high heels as Patricia, and finally animalistically running around and crawling up walls as the monstrous, superhuman Beast (no relation to the X-Men hero, though he could plausibly exist in the same universe).  McAvoy’s “look at me, I’m acting!” hamminess is somewhat enjoyable in a campy sort of way, but none of his co-stars make much of an impression.  Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are standard-issue horror movie fodder, while Anya Taylor-Joy has one mode of monosyllabic surliness and Betty Buckley is on-hand as Dr. Exposition.  As usual, Shyamalan gives himself a cameo, and wisely doesn’t give himself a lot to say (though in fairness, he can at least recite a couple lines more naturally than Stan Lee, who incessantly inserts himself into virtually every Marvel film ever made).

Shyamalan prides himself on his 11th hour “shock twists” (some of which are more effective than others), but Split‘s climax is where it goes completely off the rails.  An unexpected mid-credits cameo serves to make it clear that Split and Unbreakable exist in the same “universe”, but this only serves to muddy the waters and leave Split feeling half-formed for the sake of a movie that might not be made.  If it does, it may perhaps in hindsight make Split look more valid, but at this point, Shyamalan’s ship has not been righted.

* *