Star Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
At this point M. Night Shyamalan is a name that associates itself with twist endings. Shyamalan’s breakout indie hit The Sixth Sense set him on a path filled with twists and turns as each subsequent film became less and less impressive. After getting the chance to direct a few big budget flops like The Last Airbender, The Happening, and After Earth, Shyamalan has put himself back in good graces with 2015’s The visit and this years Split. Split was far from the creative masterpiece that was The Sixth Sense or his follow-up film Unbreakable but it has the most potential to be considered one of his better films.
Split tells the story of Kevin (played by James McAvoy), a man who has dissociative identity disorder (or DID for short), which means he suffers from having split personalities. In Kevin’s case he has 23 distinct personalities. The science behind DID is explored and explained via Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychiatrist who has gotten to know a majority of Kevin’s multiple personalities. Some of Kevin’s personalities are more sinister than the others, this includes Dennis and Patricia. These two personalities believe in a 24th personality called ‘The Beast,’ supposedly the next step in human evolution which sees all of the personalities co-existing simultaneously, but with violent tendencies. Because of their beliefs Dennis and Patricia abduct three girls to feed to the beast in a ritualistic sacrifice. After the girls are separated from each other, the story follows Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she tries to navigate Kevin’s mind and try to escape from her impending death.
One of the best parts of Split is how small scale it is. This film proves that Shyamalan creates his best work when he has less to work with. With the exception of a few small roles found in flashbacks, the film only has five actors in it, and only three of them can be considered main characters. James McAvoy carries a majority of the films acting as he is forced to act like multiple people, sometimes all in one scene. McAvoy does an excellent job of not only changing the tone of his voice and the clothes he wears, but he changes his body language to reflect the individual he is portraying. The first personality that we meet, Dennis, is a strong, quiet, OCD, man. He always has his back straight, and carries himself with a sense of pride and determination. Compare this to another personality, Barry, who is flamboyant and extraverted. Dennis is always adjusting things because of his OCD, and Barry just doesn’t care. The only disappointing aspect of McAvoy’s performance was not getting to see all 23 personalities. Instead, the film shows you eight. I have confidence McAvoy would have managed to make each personality unique in the same way he did all the ones on screen. But, I can’t help feeling like the number 23 was thrown out arbitrarily in an attempt to add “scare factor” to his character. While Split was nothing spectacular, McAvoy’s performance was almost Oscar-worthy in its own way. It is hard to critique the other performances in the film because of how easily they are overshadowed by McAvoy. There was nothing bad about Anya Taylor-Joy’s or Betty Buckley’s performance, their characters were just average, and both of the actresses played their parts well.
Continuing with the small scale theme of the film, Split features very few locations. A majority of the film takes place in the basement where it appears Kevin has made up his permanent residence. The place is small and claustrophobic and the layout makes very little sense. Shymalan purposely composes shots to disorient the viewer in the same way that Casey and the other two girls are disoriented during their time locked up. While I appreciated the end result, the way Shyamalan achieved the effect was lazy and frustrating to watch. During a majority of the shots in the basement, Shyamalan choose to focus on the actors faces. This can be effective if he wants to emphasize their emotion, but this technique should be used sparingly. I don’t need 50 shots of Casey looking sad or confused or panicked. Instead, give me something interesting to look at. There is a scene at the end that focuses in on some of the details in the basement, but these could have been included in background shots to show how the basement is an extension of Kevin’s character. Even when Kevin leaves the basement, Shyamalan choses to ignore the background in favor of character emotion and action. This would have been great had there not been interesting aspects of the characters found in the various environments they lived in.
I think Split was a good film, but it wasn’t as good as I had hoped. Because of his name, I found myself searching for what the twist could be the second the film started. It was distracting. It did help me focus on more of the nuances of the film in hopes of finding some clue that would be important later. I even started numbering the different personalities of Kevin as they appeared on screen in an attempt to find some kind of twist there. Ultimately, there was no twist in the film. The entire narrative was straightforward, played within its established rules, and as a result the film was satisfying to watch. Until the epilogue. After the film ends, Shymalan tags on an epilogue to the story that at first seems like the equivalent of the “where are they now?” sections at the end of the “Based on a True Story” films. Which is fine, until Shyamalan had to go and Shyamalan all over his perfectly decent film. I won’t ruin the twist here, and I can promise it doesn’t ruin any part of the film. It was one of those moments that felt tacked on and made me roll my eyes.
Like I said, Split was a good film, but not great. It easily beats out a majority of Shyamalan’s other work. If I had to rank it, I would put it third after Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense. If you need a horror fix right away, go ahead and give this one a try. There’s no need to rush out and spend the money to see it in theaters. If you can wait for it to show up on Netflix or in a Redbox, I’d recommend that instead.