Movie reviews may not be meaningful to every reader, whether as standalone essays or as en masse aesthetic bellwether, but there’s a reason the last M. Night Shyamalan film I saw was 2002’s Signs. Light word on the street about his last two projects — the Fox summer series Wayward Pines and the tiny Blumhouse scary film The Visit — hinted that perhaps a comeback was in the offing. The flashy trailer for his latest project Split appealed to me less on his name and more for the opportunity afforded James McAvoy to do his own riff on Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets, or possibly Orphan Black. Sometimes it’s fun when talented actors from other countries play half the characters in a given production with a variety of accents. Sometimes, but not always.
On a related note: I’ve tried not to turn this into a full-on recap of the film, but the things that aggravated me most are largely spoilers, buried further down in the “Nitpicking” section in sum but not in exacting detail. If you’re hoping to catch Split someday with the mandatory Shyamalan “twist” intact, a few sentences here — as well as the film’s official entries on both Wikipedia and IMDb — may give you one hint too many of Shyamalan’s game plan. (This section throws shade and spoilers around for two other films, both more than eight years old. Stop me when that’s a problem.)
Short version for the unfamiliar: This time Professor X is the villain, a guy named Kevin with twenty-three labeled personalities with just enough semblance of balance that he lives a seemingly normal life as long as he maintains a consistent therapy schedule. Unfortunately, as with any randomly selected group of twenty-three individuals, a few of Kevin’s characters dissent from the majority compromise and have their own ideas about The Way Things Should Be.
To that end, a trio of teenage girls find themselves held captive at Kevin’s spooky abode, berated by the sides of him that have gone off the rails, and fearing for their lives when oblique hints are dropped about the purpose of their abduction. Little do Evil Kevin, Lady Kevin, Kid Kevin, and the Secret Kevins Yet-to-Come realize one of their three victims is not like the other.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) is the closest we have to a hero among the trio. She’s not quite the kickbutt Ellen Ripley figure or surprise martial artist or inventive genius we’d hope for in our women-in-jeopardy scenarios (cf. 10 Cloverfield Lane), much more subdued and complicated in portraying the grim reality that sometimes survival against the odds is less about strength than it is about endurance.
Betty Buckley from TV’s Eight is Enough is Kevin’s spellbound analyst, thrilled to have such a scintillating research specimen. Neal Huff (The Wire, last year’s Spotlight) has about three minutes as a kind but useless dad. Shayamalan himself pops in for a scene as a helpful guy with handy security camera access.
The film’s final minute welcomes a very special, very familiar guest star whose presence changes the very nature of the film. (If only it were Michael Fassbender.)
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Anyone hoping for a serious treatise on dissociative identity disorder, what we used to call “multiple personality disorder” or simply “split personalities”, has shown up for the wrong flick. Here it’s largely co-opted as a vehicle for sci-fi suspense, playing more like McAvoy has twenty-three different lost souls or wandering telepaths trapped inside his skull. He’s either doing much better than can be expected or deviously feigning wellness, depending on which of him you ask.
More troubling but arguably less unrealistic is his therapist, who’s rather accommodating to his quirks and flexible with their appointment schedule because to her his condition is a boundless wealth of fascination and seminar material. She discusses issues and feelings with his key spokespeople with such relish that her loss of objectivity and perspective is ultimately her downfall.
Meanwhile down in the hidden catacombs, our three teens slowly work their way up from abject terror to attempted Strong Female Character status, with predictably mixed results because, high-profile director or not, this is still the kind of film where not everyone gets out unharmed. As mystery gives way to shocking surprise in the third act, the prevailing Big Bad’s defining belief is that people who have never experienced severe trauma are inherently weak and subject to culling on principle. The flawed old adage “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is extrapolated into the updated theory, “The more you’re damaged, the stronger you get,” not unlike the Hulk. Or in the words of said Big Bad: “The broken are the more evolved.” At one bizarre yet crucial juncture, this worldview plays out with brutality and mercy at the same time.
Nitpicking? Child molestation is a source of historical trauma point for one character, remembered within barely mitigating PG-13 boundaries with the kind of disturbing implications that might be an instant deal-breaker for some viewers. It’s treated far more gravely than DID is, not trivialized by any means, but it’s upfront nonetheless.
Setting aside the murderous-crazy-person standard for every other suspense film ever, past a certain point the suspense film that was marketed as a suspense film in all its suspense-film trailers stops being a suspense film. From here we pause for the courtesy spoiler alert as we briefly discuss within this section only…
…the part where Split turns into a super-hero film. Because Lord knows we’re running short on these. I had the same issue back in 2000 when I saw Unbreakable, which at first played like an inventive if slothful Twilight Zone episode, only to stand revealed as a super-hero origin film once Mr. Glass played his final cards. (The abrupt, unsatisfying Dragnet ending didn’t help.) Or along those same lines in reverse, there was the time Hancock sold as a movie about a superhero fallen from grace (an antihero origin, if you will) only to ditch its premise halfway through and instead become half-baked fantasy about forgotten immortals living among us. Or something. I refuse to try remembering it with any further clarity.
Point is: I was all settled in to enjoy the first low-budget, done-in-one thriller I’ve tried watching in theaters in ages, only to find out before it’s too late that Shyamalan was continuing the super-hero universe he launched in Unbreakable, probably incorporating some of his other works if allowed to (I’m sure Haley Joel Osment is free at the moment), and ultimately, just possibly, leading up to his own version of NBC’s Heroes with movie tickets. Call it ShyamaLand.
My son and I shared equal annoyance with the last-minute bait-and-switch maneuver, as if the movie itself had two personalities — the likeable spooky one from the trailers, and the secret one it keeps tucked away till it has you in its clutches and wants to hear you begging for sequels.
So what’s to like? Fans of James McAvoy should be happy to watch him at work, running through a gamut of emotions, reactions, dissolves, and temperamental shifts both sudden and gradual. In these early sequences before “Kevin” upgrades to his final Dragon Ball form, Shyamalan’s measured hand is a boon, allowing for luxurious, uninterrupted takes of one man’s various forms of madness playing out across his expressions, each of him chatting with the young ladies as if everything is perfectly fine and mannered and not at all unhinged. McAvoy has come a long way since the days of the harmless Mr. Tumnus.
As the one who eventually stands up most boldly to him, Anya Taylor-Joy matches him as much as she can within the confines of her character’s battle scars. Outweighing the eye-rolling overtures toward the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe, hers is the more compelling and haunting character arc, with her past and present colliding in one big psychological tangle that leaves her with, if not necessarily closure, at least a future wider open at the end than it was when the day started. The Witch was on my viewing pile before I saw this, and I look forward to seeing how that one turns out. Hopefully it’s not a big-budget summer blockbuster crossover with Lion and some forthcoming movie called The Wardrobe.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Split end credits, though they’re backed with interesting wallpaper, twenty-four screens showing identical copies of said end credits. It would’ve made more sense to have twenty-four radically different sets of concurrent end credits, but that might’ve cost more to produce than the film itself.