Split (2017) – Movie Review
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson & Jessica Sula
Music by: West Dylan Thordson
Release Date: January 20th 2017
Much like M. Night Shyamalan’s most iconic films, his career has undergone several twists and turns. After bursting onto the scene in the late 90s and almost immediately being heralded “The Next Spielberg” with ‘The Sixth Sense‘, a decade later he had blown away his credibility. After high-profile flops such as ‘The Happening‘, ‘The Last Airbender‘ and more, he made somewhat of a comeback in 2015 with the found-footage horror-comedy ‘The Visit‘ made under the direction of Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions.
While ‘The Visit‘ was not on the level of his earlier works, it was still a critical and commercial success and that partnership with Blumhouse has prompted another project in ‘Split‘; a horror-thriller made for $9M as opposed to the $150M tent-pole failures that almost seemed destined to become a regular fixture of M. Night’s filmography. Also, in a film where the antagonist portrays a man with 24 distinct personalities, it seems perfect casting to include James McAvoy, an actor with a frightening amount of range. Is this film part of a new Shyamaissance along with ‘The Visit‘ or was that success an outlier?
Student Casey Cooke (Taylor-Joy) and her classmates Claire (Richardson) and Marcia (Sula) are leaving a Birthday party when they’re knocked unconscious and kidnapped by Kevin (McAvoy); a man with multiple personalities. Kevin, a man with 23 distinct personalities, locks the girls up in an unknown location with the intention of feeding the girls to a brand new 24th personality known as “The Beast”. While Kevin has been having regular sessions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley) and is acting like everything is normal, Karen worries that Kevin is about to do something terrible and Casey starts to engineer a plan to escape.
In terms of the structure of the story, ‘Split‘ plays like a regular kidnapping-thriller in the vein of ‘10 Cloverfield Lane‘ or ‘Misery‘. Casey, Claire and Marcia are kidnapped in an incredibly creepy prologue which does a great job at hooking the audience and then they they try to escape their captivity, discover clues along the way as to where they are and why they’re there. However, it’s in the details and the original concepts where ‘Split‘ sets itself apart and it’s mostly due to the character of Kevin (The Host), Barry (the fashionable leader), Hedwig (a 9-year old boy), Dennis (OCD and violent), Patricia (an orderly woman) and more. As the kidnapped girls are meeting Kevin for the first time, the audience are as well which gives the protagonists and the audience common ground in their lack of understanding of this individual which makes him come across as very unpredictable.
We don’t see all 24 personalities, but there’s the sense that Shyamalan has thought through many of the details into how a person like Kevin can exist in this film’s universe by building a mythology around the character. Hedwig explains to Casey that all the personalities sit in a room waiting for Barry to let them have their turn “in the light”. However, there’s a power-struggle happening in Kevin’s mind with some personalities able to take the light whenever they want, some personalities pretending to be other personalities etc which keeps the audience on their toes and makes Kevin the highlight of the film.
There’s certainly a valid discussion to be had about whether or not the framing of Dissociative Identity Disorder is in poor taste and further stigmatises people with multiple personalities who live otherwise ordinary lives. This issue is exacerbated when you consider that people with DiD aren’t very often depicted in media and whenever they are it’s often in a negative light and ‘Split‘ follows that stereotype. I can see and understand where that thought is coming from, however ‘Split‘ does seem to be taking place in a “hyper-reality” sort of world and if it’s an exploitation film, then it’s in a similar mould to ‘The Visit‘ which took many off-putting traits about the elderly and used that to enhance the creep-factor. The comparison isn’t one-to-one but hopefully you get the meaning.
Personally, it’s easy to forgive ‘Split‘ for what could be considered a disrespectful portrayal of those with DiD because it manages to bring forward a fascinating idea with “The Beast”. There have been real-life, documented cases of people with multiple personalities being able to change their physiology from personality to personality. For example one case had someone who had no allergies but when they changed personalities they had allergies, another had a man break out in a case of hives in 11 out of his 12 personalities when drinking Orange Juice. Another was near-sighted in one personality but far-sighted in another etc. ‘Split‘ takes this concept of the mental stimuli being so strong that it can prompt physical change to its extreme by having some of Kevin’s personalities develop a religion out of “The Beast” and believe so strongly in it that it manifests itself physically as a creature that can climb walls, possess super-human strength and a taste for blood. It’s a fascinating concept that sets ‘Split‘ apart from just a thriller with a memorable villain. If ‘Split’ is stigmatising anything, it’s more-so religion than it is DiD.
But it would all fall apart if it wasn’t for James McAvoy’s tremendous performances. We’ve seen how diverse a performer he is in his wide-ranging roles from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe‘, the “X-Men” franchise, ‘Filth‘, ‘Trance‘ and more so there’s no question that he has the capabilities for this role, but it’s still something else to watch it happen before your eyes. He’s a brilliant presense, simultaneously funny, frightening, sympathetic, unpredictable and more. It almost defies description and he runs away with the entire enterprise.
Fairing slightly less well are the rest of the cast members. None of them are particularly bad but lack much in terms of range or personality. Betty Buckley feels wasted as Kevin’s psychiatrist as she’s mainly a form of exposition, Anya Taylor-Joy does well in the role of the social outcast with a troubled childhood but it’s a rather stock character and her classmates played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula basically only exist as red-shirts in the making and are saddled with pretty poor dialogue.
M. Night Shyamalan does not seem to know how to write dialogue for American, middle-class, teenage girls. Who knew?
Some other issues with ‘Split‘ is something that’s always been present in Shyamalan’s work and that’s tonal whiplashes. The pacing of the film is often disrupted by flashbacks to Casey’s childhood but some of it feels poorly judged and inadvertently funny whenever it’s meant to be creepy. It also feels redundant as Casey’s behaviour and reveals to Kevin nearer the end of the film gives the audience all the information they needed anyway. There’s also a few shots of “The Beast” near the end of the movie which are meant to be terrifying, but due to the sound mixing and the cinematography almost play as a parody.
It’s a shame because for the most part ‘Split‘ is a well shot and well-produced movie even if Shyamalan is striving for a Hitchcockian thriller and doesn’t quite get there in terms of visual inventiveness. The film makes the most of its limited budget and setting, however and the lighting is effectively utilised as the captors find themselves exploring new and uncharted areas of the environment. There’s a surprising amount of violence towards the end of the movie with great make-up, though the score from West Dylan Thordson is rather generic horror/thriller music.
‘Split‘ may still have some of M. Night Shyamalan’s least-desirable traits as a filmmaker from his awkward dialogue and awkward tonal shifts, it’s still a worthwhile low-budget, high-concept horror-thriller thanks to its fascinating (though possibly disrespectful) approach to Dissociative Identity Disorder and how it could pertain to religion, faith and belief. James McAvoy gives a courageous performance and it absolutely pays-off here, even if the rest of the cast are given little to work with but if the film’s ending is any indication, this story is not yet over and is heading in some very interesting directions. ‘Split‘ isn’t Shyamalan at his best, but he’s on an upward trajectory and he never fails to create a film that’s, at worst, interesting to dissect and talk about.
I give ‘Split‘ 3 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 10th Jan 18