James McAvoy helps save M. Night Shyamalan from himself in Split.
Like many others, I have been frustrated by M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Since I am a big fan of his first five movies—The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs … and yes, even The Village and Lady in the Water—I was stunned by just how wooden and uninspired The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were. I didn’t see 2015’s The Visit because generally I cannot handle horror, but I know that it was the first time in thirteen years where a film of his wasn’t critically panned.
For the same reasons I didn’t see The Visit (read: because I’m a huge scaredy-cat), I was hesitant about watching Split. But I thought to myself, “Would James McAvoy really be involved with something horrible?” In my book, he hasn’t made a major career misstep yet. I was curious to see if this would be his first, and that curiosity overpowered any other qualms I had.
The good news is that for anyone else out there who doesn’t want to see a horror movie, Split is not a horror movie. Is it a thriller? Yes. Is it very scary in parts? Yes. Do blood and guts make an appearance? Only for a few seconds. But if this wimp can handle it, you can handle it—trust me.
The plot revolves around Kevin (McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder—which was once called multiple personality disorder. Four of those personalities are most prominent during the film: Dennis, a not-so-nice guy with OCD; Patricia, a polite and proper British woman; Hedwig, a nine-year-old boy; and Barry, an effeminate clothing designer. Dennis abducts three teenage girls—Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—and is keeping them prisoner in a windowless and locked room. Some of his personalities know this is wrong and are trying to reach Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, who also starred in The Happening), a psychiatrist who has gotten to know Barry and some of the other personalities well over the past decade. However, as days pass, the situation grows more desperate for all involved, and Dr. Fletcher begins to suspect that Kevin’s more volatile personalities are gaining the upper hand and planning something awful.
McAvoy’s performance is absolutely incredible—you can tell which personality he’s playing without him even uttering a word. His facial expressions, and particularly how his eyes change as he switches from character to character, are the stuff of acting genius. (And, in some cases, nightmare fodder for the audience.)
What’s unfortunate is how Shyamalan treats his three younger actresses. He uses Dennis’s need for cleanliness as a weak justification for showing lots and lots of skin, and it’s just gross. Note to all Hollywood directors: grow up. It’s hard to take a moviemaker seriously when bad, distracting choices like this are made. Instead of being scared out of my mind for Casey, I found myself fuming about why the camera had to be shooting down her cleavage. Instead of wondering what horrible fate might be waiting for Marcia as Dennis led her down a hallway, I was stewing about the fact that she was in skimpy briefs. Instead of rooting for Claire to find a weapon to use against Dennis, I was rolling my eyes about all of the bra shots. These things constitute a total failure in direction. Do better, guys.
Aside from my extreme annoyance at Shyamalan resorting to the “sexy captive teen” trope, I was taken in by Split’s mysteries and oddly comforted by seeing some of his old tricks on the big screen again: quick edits, his usual cameo appearance, a general sense of spookiness, and subtle hints to what lies ahead that you don’t fully grasp until the film is over.
On that note, let me offer some advice: don’t do what I did. Don’t go into this film looking for “the Shyamalan twist” that will surely come at the end. Because there isn’t one, in the sense of what we’ve come to expect from him. Unlike most of his other films, Split isn’t trying to trick you. How much you ultimately enjoy it will be determined by whether you find McAvoy’s performance enough to outweigh the schlock of some of the other scenes.
The Bottom-Line? I’m disappointed by some of Shyamalan’s choices in this film, but Split is still worth seeing in the theater for James McAvoy’s brilliance in taking on multiple characters (plus thrillers are always more fun with a big audience anyway). M. Night fans will be treated to a little surprise at the end as well. (But seriously it is not a “twist.”)
Cast: James McAvoy (several character personalities including Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and Barry), Anya Taylor-Joy (Casey Cooke), Betty Buckley (Dr. Karen Fletcher), Jessica Sula (Marcia), Haley Lu Richardson (Claire)
Credits: Directed and written by M. Night Shyamalan
Studio: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
Erika Olson © January 19, 2017