Split *** / *****
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan.
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring: James McAvoy (Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/The Beast/Kevin Wendell Crumb/Barry/Orwell/Jade), Anya-Taylor Joy (Casey Cooke), Betty Buckley (Dr. Karen Fletcher), Haley Lu Richardson (Claire Benoit), Jessica Sula (Marcia), Izzie Coffey (Casey – 5 year old), Brad William Henke (Uncle John), Sebastian Arcelus (Casey’s Father).
A part of me will always root for M. Night Shyamalan to regain his form, and become the truly great director he has had the potential to become since his breakthrough – The Sixth Sense – 17 years ago now. I’m not exaggerating when I say that on the strength of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable (undeniably his best film – sorry, but it’s true) and Signs, I thought that Shyamalan could become a modern day Hitchcock. But the truth was – in then – that he is a much stronger director than he is a writer – and as he increasingly relied on plot twists, his filmography suffered. The Village is a brilliantly made, awful film – the awful writing (and for the most part awful acting) ruining what was a great looking film – and while I like Lady in the Water more than most – I will certainly admit, that once again, that’s more because the film looks great, rather than for its writing. Shyamalan has continued to struggle ever since – making one bad film after another (The Happening being his nadir or his self-penned thrillers, but The Last Airbender and After Earth, departures for him, are also terrible). The fact that 2015’s decent, but hardly great found footage cheapie, The Visit was seen as a “return to form”, has more to do with how awful his films had been for a decade. Split, his most recent film, is another, small step in the right direction – it’s Shyamalan’s best in a while to be sure – but it’s still fairly mediocre.
The film opens with a trio of high school girls being kidnapped by a very creepy looking man – who boldly comes into their car, gases them, and then takes them to his lair – which seems like some sort of bunker they cannot escape from. It’s revealed very early on that their kidnapper – played by James McAvoy – actually has 23 different personalities in his body – although we only end up meeting 9 of them. Some are nicer than others – some are genuinely sympathetic to the girls and their plight – but all of them are scared of The Beast – who they tell the girls is coming to get them.
It’s kind of a shame that Shyamalan pretty much includes two of the girls in the film for little to no effect – Haley Lu Richardson’s Claire and Jessica Sula’s Marcia – don’t have much in the way of personality, and Shyamalan doesn’t seem to have any interest in them. Instead, he’s focused on Casey Cooke (Anya-Taylor Joy – so good in last year’s The Witch) – the unpopular girl of the three, and the only one smart enough to figure out what she needs to do to survive. As in other Shyamalan films, she is portrayed as a damaged character – but someone who derives her strength from that damage. We see flashbacks to her childhood – that begin as superficiality cheerful, although they quickly turn dark. It’s because of this that she figures out what she needs to do.
It’s also kind of a shame that Shyamalan spends so much time with Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) – the psychiatrist who specializes in multiple personality disorder, and is treating McAvoy. There’s no real doubt that all the psychobabble she spews is ridiculous – movies have long loved to use this disorder, but have never taken it seriously, and neither does Shyamalan (which he doesn’t have to). McAvoy is excellent anyway, changing his performance up for each personality – and reveling in his opportunity to show off his acting chops. Taylor-Joy is even better, in part because she is building just one character, and does so better.
Still, while I certainly have my misgivings about Split, I did enjoy the film quite a bit – and think that for the most part, Shyamalan does a great job directing his movie, and genuinely building up the suspense. The writing is, again, iffy – especially the ending.
Still, perhaps this is the best we can hope for from Shyamalan – who seems incapable of truly changing his style, and also truly not interested in doing a movie without a twist ending designed to make everyone in the audience lose their mind. That hasn’t really worked for him in a while, but hey, you do you Shyamalan.