Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producer: Marc Bienstock, M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum
Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Sebastian Arcelus, Brad William Henke, Neal Huff
Three teen girls struggle to escape captivity after they are kidnapped by a mysterious man with multiple personalities.
Subtext cautioned in my review of “The Visit” (here) that overeager M. Night Shyamalan fans were jumping the gun by calling that film his comeback. With each successive release since “The Sixth Sense” steadily declining in both IMDb score and Metacritic rating, save an anomalous uptick for “After Earth,” it’s easy to understand the frustration of supporters anxious to announce a proper “return to form” for their favored filmmaker.
That string of low-rated projects after “Lady in the Water” lowered expectations to where fans were fast to forgive “found footage” flaws and overlook “The Visit’s” reliance on routine to make such a proclamation. The higher stakes of “Split” prove how much distance Shyamalan’s boomerang had yet to cover.
“Split” is precisely the type of trip into tension once synonymous with the director’s name, and a more consistently entertaining thriller too. If anyone wants to hail a Shyamalan movie as a true touchstone to the time when succumbing to his style of suspense was more enjoyable and more pertinent than staying ahead of the story to outguess its inevitable twist, then “Split” is it.
Kevin’s dissociative identity disorder manifests as 23 different personalities. Aspiring artist with fashionable flair Barry usually occupies center stage. Lately, aggressively OCD Dennis has commandeered the reins, with only socially manicured Patricia keeping Dennis’ dark desires in check.
Even Patricia can’t keep Dennis from abducting Casey, Claire, and their classmate Marcia. Not that Patricia would stop him if she could. Dennis largely wants the teen girls to strip down and dance for his pleasure. But the other alter egos have something much more important in mind for this trio.
‘The Beast’ is on his (its?) way. Dennis, Patricia, nine-year-old Hedwig, and the rest of the voices in Kevin’s head herald this previously unseen personality as something wondrous, perhaps superhuman. In fact, this 24th persona is so extraordinary that it must feed on the flesh of the impure young, which is where Casey, Claire, and Marcia come in.
Recognizing the unusual danger of their peculiar captivity, the three teens desperately scramble to escape before the Beast is released. It may be that their only way out is to seek aid from an unlikely source: one of Kevin’s other personalities.
Kevin may have two-dozen personalities, but James McAvoy only plays a half dozen of them. More accurately, Dennis, Patricia, Barry, and Hedwig are the four prominently portrayed. It’s probably best that “Split” doesn’t drown itself by jumping overboard in a DID ocean. Though one wonders why be specific about 23 alters when we don’t even see a majority of them?
I don’t need to sing McAvoy’s praises since other reviews will do that plenty. It would also be preaching to the choir of anyone who has seen him act before in at least two movies, maybe only one.
Contrarily, I propose McAvoy is cut too much slack for “Split.” As impressive as multiple characters in a single movie may be, a better test of talent is watching what McAvoy does with a role like “Victor Frankenstein” (review here), where he chews on mediocre material with such sincere skill he can transcend a film’s drabness. Here, McAvoy leans on the script to take his alter egos as far as they can go without requiring his input. McAvoy then puts more energy than necessary into distinguishing each personality when he is good enough to get away with more subtlety.
Maybe direction over-tuned McAvoy. Regardless, I’m unconvinced Hedwig needed a childlike lisp, for instance.
Three grown men seated in front of me repeatedly, and annoyingly, giggled at many of the film’s revelations and character conversations. While I don’t share their “I’m better than the movie” sneering, I can concede that some might see too much silliness in the setups to take “Split” seriously.
Shyamalan’s films often demand a healthy dollop of disbelief suspension. “Split” is no exception. The story requires buying into implausibility after improbability. However, paying that price is for the benefit of B-movie thrills at an A-movie level. It’s in your own entertainment interests to willingly go where the movie chooses to take you.
“Split” is also classic Shyamalan regarding tactics employed. Remember the recollection of Pee Wee League football in “The Visit” or how the “Signs” water glasses came back to be important? “Split” similarly uses a Chekhov’s (shot)gun for connective tissue in a callback that is only one of the movie’s many narrative conveniences. The thing is, I’d rather see M. Night Shyamalan succeeding or failing by resorting to usual tricks. They are far more forgivable when the payoff feels like entertainment instead of a cheat, which is the case here.
It’s rare that Shyamalan includes any element not serving a larger purpose, yet “Split” doesn’t need some of its scenes. An early one where Kevin’s doctor converses with an elderly woman is more about humorous asides than plot movement. And the first-person format of “The Visit” lingers in the air with a number of head-on shots where actors look right into the lens for an odd aesthetic that never feels consistent.
Overall, “Split” could go on the rack for a tune-up and all audiences still wouldn’t take to its tone. Yet “Split’s” spirit comes distinctly from its director, and falls right in line with what we’ve come to expect from his delivery. If “Split” doesn’t strike a storytelling chord in your eyes, it’s safe to assume there may be no getting you back aboard the M. Night Shyamalan wagon. Because “Split” is pure Shyamalan all the way.
Review Score: 70