Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Blinding Edge Productions, Blumhouse Productions, and Universal Pictures.
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan.
For a good, long while, there is a queasy, unsettling tone swirling about the screen in M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest psycho-thriller Split. In its finest moments, we are back to the director’s peak output, hanging on every line, scouring the screen for clues, constantly recalibrating ourselves to a journey that feels slightly off track. And perhaps most telling, after something of a career resurgence with 2015’s The Visit, Shyamalan feels almost reborn, again discovering that making movies can be a lot of fun.
Split is one nutty, rather insensitive, whirling dervish of a tale that has James McAvoy playing a man crippled by a personality affliction known as DID, or Dissociative Identity Disorder. As a result, McAvoy’s character, Kevin, has 23 different personalities percolating inside of him. And once we begin our story, we learn that there might be a 24th, something Kevin’s other personalities refer to as “The Beast.” And apparently it is on the move.
Backing up for a bit, Split hits the ground running with McAvoy’s character abducting three teenage girls in a mall parking lot. Using ether, presumably, he sprays dad into unconsciousness, slips into the car, and puts the girls to sleep. When they awake, Mara LaPere-Schloop‘s dreary and drab production design calls to mind 2016’s underground bunker of 10 Cloverfield Lane, just with more rooms and longer hallways.
The girls learn that their abductor is a tightly wound neat freak named Dennis. Eventually, Dennis gives way to Patricia, a British female accomplice, then Barry, a clothing designer, and Hedwig, a mischievous 9-year-old boy. McAvoy brings each of these characters to life in a pretty awesome performance that words cannot quite describe. Shyamalan gives him lots and lots of material to play with and the actor makes each persona real and distinct enough to make us believe in the gimmick presented before us.
A nice addition is found with Betty Buckley, who plays psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher, an expert in Kevin’s disorder. Her research and evolved hypothesis of the condition has led her to being somewhat marginalized within her community. She is sympathetic and comforting when Barry routinely pays her a visit, always off schedule. They forge a wonderful chemistry together.
Leading the triad of abductees is the fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy. As Casey, a smart girl who doesn’t quite fit in or really even knows the friends she is with, she recognizes that there might be a way into the world of her captor, by befriending a couple of Kevin’s personalities. Impatience and fear surround the others – Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) – and their desperation to escape leads them into trouble.
The film’s palpable humidity comes from cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (It Follows), who utilizes uncomfortably tightening closeups, awkward angles, and several instances of straight-on camera shots that leave us uneasy and tense. We simply can’t look away and we really don’t want to as McAvoy commands the screen without showing up anyone. He blends in humor, terror, innocence, and menace and, like the girls in custody, we never really know which persona is coming next.
For all the good happening here, and as flat out creepy a movie as this can be, Shyamalan’s free-wheeling, devil-could-care approach runs out of steam in a final act that seems sloppy and haphazardly constructed. Not the least of which concerns an ill-fitting and disquieting set of flashbacks, scenes which attempt to show us how Casey’s past can influence her present. Unfortunately, Shyamalan telegraphs the arc from a mile away and ultimately, it just plays cheap and tawdry every step of the way.
If you can look past those moments, and some may not be able to, the film is drenched in stifling air, accounting for much of its success. But I come back to McAvoy and simply stand and salute the man. Somehow he navigates around and through some truly insane sequences, creating wholly unique characters with enough nuance and control that we find credibility in each character depicted on screen.
By the end, Split overstays its welcome by a solid 15 minutes or so, building to a climactic final sequence that feels forced and obligatory. Dark and unsettling subplots complicate the wacky, off the rails temperament found through much of the movie and Taylor-Joy proves a worthy adversary, building strong off of her acclaimed turn in 2016’s The Witch.
Funny, fumbling, intense, icky, and flat out weird, Split tries on a lot of different looks and feels, creating a potentially polarizing trip out to the multiplex.
SHOULD I SEE IT?
- He’s back! Kind of. At times, we are reminded that M. Night Shyamalan’s is a pretty talented storyteller when he wants to be.
- James. McAvoy. Yeah, you’re gonna wanna see this performance!
- The movie is mostly a lot of fun (one troubling subplot aside), but it does take its time and allow you to contemplate what’s happening on screen. By making the viewer a participant of sorts, the movie almost lives up to the buzz which surrounds it.
- Some may take issue with the way DID is addressed and also Shyamalan’s use of a particular subplot to try and draw connections between two characters and in further understanding McAvoy’s struggles.
- No matter how much detail and preparation goes into McAvoy and his performances, some are just going to see a guy blathering on like a madman and find the movie silly and pointless.
- Too long and a bit campy in the final minutes, Split might significantly dull the impact a jagged little knife of a movie like this could have had on viewers.