Dan's Review: Shyamalan back to his old tricks in "Split"
James McAvoy in Split – Universal © 2016
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Kim Director, Brad William Henke, Neal Huff, Sebastian Arcelus, Izzie Coffey, Lyne Renée, (and an uncredited, major actor whose name would spoil the “surprise”).
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
M. Night Shyamalan is an enigma of a filmmaker. When he burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, it seemed he had a bright future. He had plans for more movies with equally dark themes. But there was something hidden in the success of The Sixth Sense that would reveal itself as Shyamalan’s greatest flaw: the “surprise” gimmick. All of his “dark” movies (and I don’t count 2010’s despicable The Last Airbender nor 2013’s equally abhorrent After Earth in that category) have a similar “twist” at the end of the movie; something you perhaps didn’t see coming that ties up all the loose ends and gives the audience some kind of closure. Shyamalan’s latest film Split goes back to his “dark” roots, only this time, the “twist” is less surprising (because we know it’s coming) and even worse, it’s tied to one of his earlier films (I promise not to spoil it).
It’s the story of Kevin (James McAvoy) a man with dissociative identity disorder (a.k.a. split personalities), who possesses no less than 24 separate personalities. One of his personalities kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a cellar, at the behest of two of the more dominant characters inside his troubled mind. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) are the three teens kept in seclusion as they try to figure out a means for escape. Meanwhile, one of Kevin’s personalities sees his therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who suspects her patient is under some kind of new stress. At the same time, Casey tries to befriend Hedwig, (a 9-year old boy personality) in hopes of using his innocence to escape. Casey also experiences flashbacks of abuse she endured as a 5-year-old girl (played by Izzy Coffey). The girls are sometimes assaulted and eventually forced to strip to their underwear. They are also taken to separate seclusion after a failed escape attempt. As Dr. Fletcher gets closer to the truth, a hidden personality begins to gain dominance inside Kevin, but not before there are deadly consequences. The new dominant personality may or may not be the surprise you’re expecting, but there is one major twist that happens in a bonus scene between the end title and credits. This is the whopper you’re waiting for, and it may or may not please you.
Suffice to say that Split is a major improvement for Shyamalan, which isn’t saying much, considering his recent failures. There is tension, drama and a lot of spooky, creepy stuff going on, just like his earlier work. The content of the story, however is much more dark than before, including elements of sexual assault, child sexual abuse, cannibalism and other nasty stuff. Honest, I’m baffled as to why the movie didn’t get an R rating, if only for the creepy sex crimes. There are other horror movie clichés prevalent in the movie as well, like the “why don’t you just run when you have the chance” moments and other silly plot holes you’d expect in your garden-variety slasher film.
The good news for Split is McAvoy and Buckley. McAvoy, in particular deserves a lot of acclaim for being able to switch (rather convincingly) between the numerous personalities he portrays. It’s one (okay, several) of his best performances of his career. The diverse voices, not to mention the variant body languages are truly believable; funny, desperate, creepy and of course, evil. It’s also nice that Shyamalan gave Betty Buckley a chance to show her talent. Most people may only remember her as the mom on the Eight is Enough TV series from the late 70s and early 80s.
All acting accolades aside, Split should be a success, if only for one reason. It’s controversial enough, gimmicky enough and downright gonzo enough to get people talking about it, and when rumors of the “big surprise” surface, more folks (especially fans of his earlier work) will see it out of curiosity. You may be angry about it, amused by it, shocked by it or (like most of the film critics who attended the same screening with me), you may shout at the screen, saying, “Oh COME ON!”
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and don’t be surprised at how unsurprised you are. Split is, after all, an M. Night Shyamalan movie.