Movie Review: ‘Split’
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Plot: Three teenage girls are abducted by an insane man who they quickly discover suffers from disassociated personality disorder. He has 23 personalities sharing one body. They’re now waiting for the 24th personality – ‘The Beast’ – to emerge.
Review: Here’s the strangest thing about Split: they promote it as a movie by M. Night Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense was popular enough to mask how dreadful a director he was for a while, but following After Earth, The Last Airbender, The Happening, The Lady in the Water, The Village and so forth you’d think they’d want to disassociate any new film from his name as much as possible. The Visit was OK, but that’s only because it was as far removed from the directors unique style as any previous project. If you squint and turn your head you can pretend it was by someone else. I’ve never been a fan of his work. No twist can be clever enough to override awkward close-ups, cringe inducing dialogue and career low performances from decent actors.
What they should be marketing this as is a James McAvoy project because he carries the film. He is genuinely good, which is surprising because Shyamalan is not known for getting good performances out of his actors.
McAvoy is fantastic. Some of his scenes as an uptight woman or a nine year old boy raised some laughs from the audience because of how goofy it was, but this response didn’t last long. His big success is how easy it is to tell which character we’re looking at. Simple and small changes in his inflection and expression seperate out his many characters. This trick has been done before but rarely this seamlessly. There’s a scene where he plays one personality pretending to be another personality, which is amazing to watch, and when he turns into ‘The Beast’ he becomes full on scary. It’s almost worth the ticket price for him. Heads up though – the film is marketing him as playing 24 characters but you only see about 7 of them.
What drags the rest of the film down is the typical Shyamalan ‘unique’ stylistic tropes. And I’m not just talking about an insane and pointless twist (yet). Shyamalan has a remarkable inability to write realistic and believable characters. As a result, none of the characters aside from McAvoy are in any way convincing. The protaganist, the teen girl who we spend most time with, acts more like a robot programmed to replicate human behaviour seen on TV rather a real person. She’s established as being something of an outsider at the beginning, a misanthrope who runs away from home. So when one of the other girls suggests she uses her karate training to distract their kidnapper so they can over power him our heroine responds “everything just comes so easily to people like you”. Why did she say this? What was so wrong with this plan that it had to be shot down with some ‘goth vs prep’ clique nonsense? It’s confounding. When the other girls find a potential escape route and try to break out the main girl says “wait…are we sure we want to do this?” It’s presented as some level headed calm in the midst of a panic…but there’s no reason to think staying locked in a basement with a psychopath is a better option.
Even more confusing is the way their kidnapper refers to one of them as ‘the dark haired girl’, even though she isn’t the only one with dark hair. She doesn’t even have the darkest hair. It’s like they recast a blonde actor with a dark haired one and forgot to rewrite the dialogue. It’s just plain odd. Like the way the girls spend days in their cells without searching for anything they can use to escape. Although I will concede that they may have spent the time keeping their make-up perfect because, seriously, not a smudge.
It also isn’t a Shyamalan film without a gaping plot hole. In this case it’s the worlds most irresponsible therapist. She has a patient who has 23 different personalities and with the exception of a ‘colleague in Baltimore’ she doesn’t seem to have done anything to protect this man from himself or prevent him from hurting others. It’s stated that no-one believes he can be real, but this beggars belief. Film him, present your findings, invite other experts into your sessions with him…do something to make others in the field believe you. Call the bloody news and tell them you have a guy with 23 personalities and show them. Have him committed until you’re sure he’s not dangerous, don’t set him up with a job dealing with families. This therapist knows for a fact that one of the personalities is a child sex offender, but doesn’t do anything about it because he’s ‘banned’ from being in charge. When she does find out the CHILD SEX OFFENDER is running the show she still does nothing about it. Coupled with the fact that she knows that three teenage girls in the area have been abducted at the same time that this child sex offender personality has surfaced the idea that she hasn’t alerted the authorities simply boggles the mind. In addition she has a magic phrase that brings him under control and doesn’t immediately use it when she finds out what he’s doing. She is without a doubt one of the DUMBEST character in recent film memory and that includes Chris Hemsworth in Ghostbusters.
This therapist character is the real monster here.
Shyamalan’s clunky dialogue also invades the film. His greatest shortcoming as a film maker is inserting endless pretentious lines that sound deep but ultimately mean nothing. There’s an entire scene dedicated to the therapist talking to her Price is Right obsessed neighbour just so she can say “we think of these shattered people as less…but what if they’re more?”
That doesn’t mean anything.
Then there’s the twist at the end. I’m going to address that in another article because I have things to say and I want to keep this spoiler free.
I’ve also slung a lot of muck at the film. If you strongly dislike Shyamalan’s style as I do then you’ll have the same frustrations with it. Most movie-goers will likely enjoy it though. The premise has been done before in movies like Identity and it’s proven popular if short lived. James McAvoy is a memorable character well performed and worth seeing, and the movie is successfully atmospheric during the final act.
So what score do we give a movie like this? Eh, split the difference.
Rating: FIVE out of TEN
BTW Shyamalan…if you want to include multiple sub-plots about how evil pedophiles are then stop artistically framing your shots to best show the teen girl’s cleavage.