The question that surrounds the release of any new movie by M. Night Shyamalan is whether or not the director can return to his past form which yielded successful results with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. While it could be argued that Shyamalan at least flirted with a return to form with his last film, The Visit, as the film had a quirky sensibility that worked aside from the filmmaker’s predilection for twists, and the final act is just so devilishly bonkers that it at least entertains. Early buzz for Shyamalan’s latest, Split, has been mostly positive with early audiences hyping up the film’s big twist. After seeing Split it’s fair to say that the enthusiasm was purely hyperbolic, as Shyamalan proves himself to be a filmmaker that can’t get out of his own way. This is a woeful piece of storytelling that bungles every aspect of its story as it squanders a truly magnificent performance from James McAvoy.
On the outskirts of Philadelphia, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) is wrapping up her birthday party with her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). As the outcast of the group, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) keeps waiting for a ride that is never going to come, so Claire’s father (Neal Huff) agrees to drive her home. The girls enter the car and go about their business when a stranger enters the car and sprays the young women with an anesthetic. They awake in an underground prison overseen by Dennis (James McAvoy), a bespectacled man with brute strength and obsessive compulsive disorder. The horrific events are compounded when the girls are greeted by Patricia (McAvoy), the demented matriarch of this soul afflicted with multiple personalities, and Hedwig (McAvoy), the nine-year-old boy living within the warped confines of the mind. Outside the chamber of horrors, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) continues her psychological work and routinely keeps her appointments with Barry (McAvoy), the avatar of normalcy among the 24 personalities within this tortured mind. Within the mind of this mysterious madman rages a war between the varying personalities and what lies in the balance could spell trouble for those on the outside of the underground dungeon the young women are trapped in.
The merits of Split begin and end with the performance of James McAvoy, which ranks among one of the best performances is a truly awful movie ever. McAvoy weaves in and out of these various personalities with ease. Each of the personalities that he inhabits are distinct and McAvoy seems to be relishing in the absurdity of it all. In a movie that is borderline unwatchable, McAvoy is eminently watchable. Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of The Witch, avails herself well considering the material she’s given to work with, but the script never allows the young actress to even approach the same level as her creepy onscreen counterpart.
M. Night Shyamalan never finds a rhythm with Split and the writer-director is more than willing to over play his hand with McAvoy’s brilliant performance. Instead of following the perspective of the three trapped young women, Shyamalan decides that the story needs to focus on the various personalities inhabiting the mind of the film’s enigmatic villain. This leads to some of Split’s most unsettling moments being followed with lengthy scenes where Barry talks Dr. Fletcher, and the psychiatrist delivers deadening exposition that drags out the film, dilutes any tension that may have been present. Just for good measure, Shyamalan makes sure that Dr. Fletcher repeats the deadening exposition again and again and again despite the fact that most of its rather inconsequential to where Shyamalan takes the story by the end. Never once did I feel terror or tension when the movie intends it, and at two hours Split feels well over a half hour too long for its own good.
The worst aspect of Split is the manner with which Shyamalan treats his trio of young women characters. His disinterest in these characters is palpable as the characters are merely props placed in peril to propel the story of the male with multiple personalities. As the film progresses each of these young women are forced to shed layers of clothing, but never enough to endanger the film’s PG-13 rating. The continuing escalation of the film separates the trio and two of the girls are basically shuttered away only to resurface as Shyamalan sees fit towards the end. Worst of all are the flashbacks that are intended to give some sort of depth to Taylor-Joy’s Casey. Not only do these flashbacks have the same effect of the deadening scenes of expository dialogue, slowing the film to a crawl, it is later revealed that Casey was the victim of sexual abuse by her uncle and that somehow this terrible trauma empowers her to survive this horrific scenario. Shyamalan shows neither wit nor sensitivity in handling this touchy subject and it ultimately has little to no bearing on the film’s conclusion. I guess it’s only fitting that Shyamalan’s cameo is credited as “Jai, Hooters lover.”
Finally there’s the big twist that has had people abuzz over Split. Fear not, dear reader, I won’t give it away here, but be warned that it’s not really all that effective or meaningful. A twist changes how we’ve viewed a particular story, flipping the audience’s idea of what they’ve experienced before that moment. No such thing happens in Split. What happens is a reveal that has no actual bearing on the story and for quite a few people the big event will be entirely meaningless. Sure, there’s was one fellow at my particular screening that seemed to be excessively blown away, loudly yelling “Holy shit!” repeatedly for a few minutes after. But he was the exception in the auditorium as most people, such as myself, were just happy that the movie was finally over.
It’s time to retire the question as to whether or not M. Night Shyamalan will ever return to form as a major movie director. Split makes me think that The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable were the flukes that worked and movies like The Happening are the best that we can expect. If not for the virtuoso performance by James McAvoy, Split would be a desolate wasteland of woeful cinema, overflowing with dreadful storytelling decisions and deadening exposition in place of suspense. Perhaps it’s fitting that the last effective twist that M. Night Shyamalan can provide audiences is the fact that he wasn’t that good of a filmmaker in the first place.
- Overall Score
Despite a truly brilliant performance by James McAvoy, M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is a woeful piece of cinema that features more deadening expository dialogue than suspense punctuated by an overblown “twist” that many viewers just won’t get.