AFI Film Review: SPLIT
sychological suspense thriller is a phrase that ought to be banned from movie reviews, but not while director of the creepy M. Night Shyamalan has anything to say about it. In his latest such production, Split, he has created a tense story about a man with multiple personality disorder as he struggles to contain, and maybe release, the sum total of those personalities’ parts. Anchored by a tour-de-force acting clinic by James McAvoy at its center, Split is arguably Shyamalan’s strongest movie in a decade.
(*Note: This review is spoiler free, though there have been rumors about the ending of the film among fans of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Contact us if you want to know more.)
The film opens with one of McAvoy’s personas kidnapping three teenage girls—two friends and an outcast unwittingly along for the ride. Almost immediately the little hairs on the back of your neck will rise and few times if any will they rest. McAvoy as Kevin (and his 22 other personalities) is supremely terrifying. Much like the recent 10 Cloverfield Lane, Kevin’s intentions with the girls is not clear at first, but that doesn’t make the situation any less tense or stressful.
Nor is it clear what any of the other personalities we see—from a playful child named Hedwig to a sophisticated woman to a flamboyant hairdresser—plan to do with the kidnapped. What is abundantly clear is that this dysmorphic group all speak creepily enough about the impending arrival of a 24th person to the party, someone they call “The Beast,” and that it cannot be good news if he arrives.
You will shift uncomfortably in your seat every time McAvoy is on the screen, which is, thankfully, most of the picture. He modulates seamlessly from menacing enforcer to friendly child to unnerving but soft speaking lady. Like in all good thrillers, tension accumulates slowly, leaving you anxiously guessing as to when the blow will finally land and as to what form it will take.
But for all the positively disturbing characteristics that McAvoy brings to the film, there is plenty in the clunky script to remind you why Shyamalan has been far from successful since his breakthrough with The Sixth Sense and Signs. He ineffectively weaves in a backstory involving the childhood of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the outcast of the three girls, the foil to the cool prettiness of the other captives. The abuse Casey suffered at the hands of a malicious uncle is purportedly meant to engender the audience’s sympathy and to explain her somewhat forced connection to some of Kevin’s more docile personality.
It could have worked, perhaps, were it not for the monotone delivery by Taylor-Joy (and her two other teenage costars) and the hopelessly plain characters they are asked to play. The hysterical girl, the resourceful girl, the quiet but determined girl. For a movie about such complex psychological phenomena as those surrounding multiple personality disorder, the three victim characters are disappointingly flat. It is not about them, I get it, but you should at least be partly rooting for them to survive.
Rounding out the hapless bunch is Kevin’s psychologist, an endearing Betty Buckley, who suspects something is amiss but may be too in over her head to do something about it. Another character, another stereotype of the psychological thriller.
The problem, again, is the clunky and ear-grating script, as it has been with Shyamalan’s recent work. Eye-roll inducing lines litter the dialogue. “The broken are the more enlightened, rejoice!” So proclaims one of the beastlier of Kevin’s multiple personalities in a grunting sequence. That may be true for misfit superheroes in the usual way, but it is certainly no proxy for M. Night’s recent body of shattered work. Nor do the opening conversations between the three kidnapped women fare any better, with one telling the other they’ve been privileged all their lives as a clichéd setup for a convoluted denouement during the movie’s climatic sequences. And McAvoy himself is forced to deliver some clunkers in the pivotal end sequences much to the destruction of the otherwise perfect tension that Shyamalan had managed to achieve.
But for all the fluff and lack of script discipline, Shyamalan may have regained some of his long-lost footing by returning to basics. It’s not that there is a great twist ala Sixth Sense, but he does resist his baser impulses by allowing the story to develop slowly and by lulling the audience into growing accustomed to the sinister and unsettling performance by McAvoy. Put all that together with his undeniable talent to move the camera around dark, tight spaces that effectively suffocate the audience as well as the players, and the net result is a half-decent, mostly watchable quasi horror story. The supernatural is hinted at, always working around the periphery and this time it is OK.
It may not be the next Close Encounters, but Split, as a backstory for what appears to be the development of a broader character arc launching off of McAvoy’s frightening Split personality, may just have potential for more.