Split is M. Night Shyamalan’s best movie in a decade, but then again that’s not inherently high praise. His career-making The Sixth Sense continues to define him, and its follow-up, Unbreakable, was for some time one of the finest superhero-related movies of all time – if only because it was one of the only ones available. These days it doesn’t hold up; oh well. His other movies? They are what they are. Split, for all its innumerable flaws and, at times, complete tone-deaf awfulness, is more entertaining than them.
Classic horror film set-up
It’s a classic premise: three teens are kidnapped by a madman and need to escape. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Clarie (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are lifted from a mall parking lot by Kevin (James McAvoy) and taken to a claustrophobic underground bunker where he starts ‘preparing them’ for some unpleasant end. The girls quickly realize that Kevin isn’t working alone. He’s accompanied by Patricia, a middle-aged woman with a cold heart; Hedwig, an innocent 9-year old boy; and Dennis, an obsessive-compulsive bastard who likes to watch young girls dance naked. To make matters worse, each kidnapper is actually one of Kevin’s 23 personalities, because he suffers from a heightened form of fictional dissociative identity disorder.
McAvoy’s shines, taking on a problematic roll with admirable gusto. The variety of characters means he goes broad, sometimes to the detriment of the movie tonally, but on the whole his performance here is campy and fun. He’s the kind of movie villain you’d like to see again.
Villain is only interesting character
Unfortunately he’s just about the only above-average part of Split, because the rest is just a smidgen above “direct-to-dvd” in quality. Shyamalan’s capable of directing thrillers with a lot of tension, but he’s terrible at writing them. We never really get to know any of the three girls – which is a real problem with regards to Casey, who is supposed to be the emotional core of the movie. Instead we’re serviced with out-of-place eye candy in the case of her friends, and a deeply wrongheaded childhood sexual abuse plot line for Casey. The latter is a story that just doesn’t gel with the rest of the movie and is handled in such an off-the-cuff fashion as to be downright exploitative. It feels nasty, and not in the way horror movies are supposed to make you feel.
Horror-wise, Split is something of a one-trick pony. Kevin’s personality shifts never feel unpredictable, dictated more by plot than by thrill. The tunnels surrounding his lair are all beautifully shot by Mike Bioulakis (It Follows), but there are only so many times a half-naked girl can run away from a bad guy before it becomes repetitive. When the movie ended, a friend’s 9-year old came up to us an told us she wished it was scarier. You probably will, too.
Shyamalan’s career in freefall mode
It’s disappointing that Shyamalan hasn’t been able to recapture the same level of success he found earlier in his career, and it’s a little wrongheaded to bemoan it so openly in a review of his newest movie. But the problems at the heart of Split are so deeply fundamental that it’s as if he’s been experiencing his career in backwards order. It’s edgy, thin, non-sensical and overindulgent in amateurish ways. What sets it apart from his other recent films is that it is, thanks to McAvoy, watchable.
Evan Dossey is also a critic for http://www.thefilmyap.com/