Split marks another uneven Shyamalan thriller acted by a talented cast.
Split is another thriller with big promises that don’t always deliver brought to you by the one and only M. Night Shyamalan. In another “If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the whole movie” scenario, Split delivers the bare minimum of what it’s required to, while providing a brilliant performance by James McAvoy and a stellar supporting cast.
So, there’s this teenager Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) who gets invited to a birthday party where she sits alone and stares out the window thinking about whether she’s bored or depressed. The birthday girl and her bestie are bummed out when her dad offers to give Casey a ride home (ugh, we have to share a car with that freak?) While the three girls sit comfortably in the black sedan, daddy puts all the nice presents in the trunk when a psychotic stranger maces him and gets in the driver seat. “Um, sir, I think you have the wrong car,” says the birthday girl just seconds before he puts on a mask and maces them all.
Cut to flash-edited credits ala “Se7en” style and the three girls find that they are being held captive in a strange room. In walks Kevin (James McAvoy) a bald, fit man with impeccable taste who tells them that they are there for a purpose. As he leaves the three girls panic and look through the keyhole to see a woman wearing a dress and high heels. They scream for help, only to discover that this woman is indeed Kevin, or “Patricia” as he calls himself, with a British accent. Then there’s Hedwig, a 9 year old boy with a 90’s parka and a lisp. Clever Casey knows what’s up, and realizes he has multiple personalities. The girls are forced to talk to the nice personalities before the evil “beast” takes over.
Meanwhile, the film is split (literally) between scenes of the teen girls in peril and Kevin meeting with his matronly psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Fletcher serves as the film’s explanation of what multiple personality disorder is and what it is capable of doing. For instance, one personality could have an allergy to a bee sting, and one could be diabetic, all in the same body. The film has a great first half and an excellent set up, and from here on out, it’s a mystery to see if a) will the girls survive? b) will the psychiatrist find out what Kevin is truly capable of? and c) will the twenty-fourth personality really be a “beast”?
Split is overwrought and overdone, but what makes it memorable is the performance of James McAvoy. He is utterly believable playing several different personalities. Even with the minimal costume changes, McAvoy plays each character with his facial expressions and voice. He can provide a great laugh one minute and then a chilling, scary moment the next. Anya Taylor-Johnson is great, even if she has a terribly exploitative back story that is so unneeded. She became a breakout star in last year’s exceptional The Witch and continues to be a force. Buckley is fantastic as the psychiatrist. Once a powerhouse stage actress, Buckley has teamed up with Shyamalan before in the campy The Happening, but this time Buckley shines in Split as the passionate doctor trying so desperately to understand each and every one of Kevin’s personalities.
And then there’s M. Night Shyamalan. What is there to say. He broke out in 1999 with the exceptional game changing film The Sixth Sense that swept everyone away, causing people to dub him “the next Spielberg”. Unfortunately, he never quite lived up to the hype. After a series of movies with great premises but terribly executed twist endings including Unbreakable, The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening, Shyamalan then was dubbed a “one trick pony”. I mean, one has to give him props, he’s an excellent filmmaker when it comes to pacing, editing, and suspense. He has great ideas but somehow his scripts fizzle out in the third act. Split, once again, is a perfect example of a killer premise, excellent first half, and then it just becomes standard. And then there’s Casey’s horrifying exploitative flashback stories that really feel unearned and belong in another movie. However, Shyalaman does a good job technically and crafts a small-scale thriller that delivers great lines and several standout scenes.
Split is in no way a great movie, and it’s definitely not a bad one. The trailer sets it up and the film meets expectations, never really rising above. It’s standard and not entirely scary, but it is ultimately memorable due to the three standout performances, particularly that of McAvoy, an actor who is proving to be fiercely versatile.
Here is the trailer: