A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2017

SPLIT jj

2017, R, 117 mins.

 

James McAvoy as Kevin  /  Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey  /  Haley Lu Richardson as Claire  /  Jessica Sula as Marcia  /  Betty Buckley as Dr. Fletcher  /  Kim Director as Hannah  /  Brad William Henke as Uncle John

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan

My patience in waiting for a "return to form" for director M. Night Shyamalan has all but eroded.

After bursting onto the scene in the late 90's with his multiple Oscar nominated THE SIXTH SENSE and following up that lauded effort with 2000's UNBREAKABLE and 2002's SIGNS I was quite sure that he was going to be the next Steven Spielberg.  

I really, really did.  

Then something happened: he went from being the it filmmaker of his generation to becoming a laughable industry punch line.  One soul crushingly awful film after another tainted his resume during the 2000's, like THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH, during which time he became the poster child for dreck cinema.  Each new film felt less Hitchcockian and more like Ed Wood Jr. efforts with unfathomable budgets.

No other director has had such a disgraceful fall from grace as much as Shyamalan.  No one.  Last year's found footage horror thriller THE VISIT was praised as a comeback vehicle for him, and although it was infinitely better than his last five previous efforts, to say that it was his most assured and poised effort since SIGNS wasn't really saying much.  Now comes SPLIT, another horror thriller that many have convinced themselves is the definitive "return to form" for the Indian American director, and I can confidently say that this is easily his most intriguing venture in 15 years.  Unfortunately, to qualify it as a wholly successful rebirth of the once quality assured Shyamalanian cinematic brand would be foolhardy, seeing as the inherently strong material and enthralling premise here is somewhat betrayed by sloppy scripting decisions.  This is more of a frustratingly undisciplined movie than a putrid one.

 

 

I will say this, though: SPLIT most assuredly has the best initial hook of any Shyamalan film since THE SIXTH SENSE.  No question.  The film opens with a fairly unassuming introduction and then fully descends into a lurid nightmare.  We meet three teenage girls that are leaving a birthday party - Claire (THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN's Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and the very unpopular Casey (THE WITCH's Anya Taylor-Joy) - and are heading home when a strange man enters their vehicle, locks the doors, and drugs them unconscious.  When they all awaken they realize the severity of their dire situation: They're being held captive against their wills in a vast subterranean lair with no visible exits or means of escape by their captor Kevin (James McAvoy), who suffers from split personality disorder and morphs between any of his 23 distinctly unique personas at the drop of a hat.  

Holy.  Shit. 

Now, being held captive is scary enough to the young girls, but trying to discern the true motives of their kidnapper (or kidnappers) is decidedly difficult, seeing as Kevin crosses from one identity to the next with alarming speed, which leaves trying to read his next move all the more impossible.  What Kevin does reveal is that all of his personalities - collectively referred to as "The Horde" - have snatched the girls in order to offer them up for ritualistic sacrifice to "The Beast", whom will be coming.  Now, some of The Horde's personalities are seemingly harmless, like Hedwig, who has the mentality of a child, whereas others are intimidating and monstrous, like maintenance man Dennis.  Of course, more personalities are brought to the forefront, one in particular is a flamboyant New York fashion designer that makes frequent visits to his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who believes that The Beast is most likely a complete figment of Kevin's imagination.  Regardless of the credibility of Kevin's story, the three girls go into crisis mode and try to figure out a way to stop him and ensure their freedom.

As to this film's positives, the most strikingly obvious one has to be the tour de force and deeply committed performance (or should I say performances) by the fearless McAvoy, who single-handedly takes full command of SPLIT and makes it a thriller worthy of our anxiety plagued attention.  The sheer complexity of his work here is undeniable, seeing as he has to craft a series of very unique characters and transition between them all throughout the narrative, and the results are nothing short of mesmerizing to behold.  Not only does McAvoy have to convey numerous different emotional ranges for all of his characters, but he also has to evoke their varying physicality as well.  It could easily be said that McAvoy is juicily hamming it up in pure scenery chewing mode here, but he's so utterly arresting to watch throughout SPLIT that you're willing to forgive such theatrical flights of fancy by him.  Granted, the Glasgow born actor has churned out awards caliber work before (see his criminally undervalued performance in FILTH), but here he achieves something more fiendishly ambitious and challenging.  SPLIT is never dull while McAvoy takes center stage.

He's flanked rather well by Anya Taylor-Joy, who thankfully is not playing yet another helpless female victim in a slasher film; she's afforded a bit more depth than what we're usually accustomed to witnessing in these types of films.  Unfortunately, the two other girls with her are essentially one dimensionally rendered puppets being served up to the slaughter.  This regrettably takes me to one of my first misgivings with Shyamalan's script: For as much originality as he imparts in his film's basic premise, it certainly resorts to an awful lot of contrived and overused horror troupes, especially in the manner that the girls behave less like people and more like witless genre archetypes that make decisions that are frankly stupid.  I hate it in films like this when characters act illogically and make decisions that no sane or rationale person occupying a normal plane of reality would make.  Mournfully, the only way a film like this can progress forward is by having moronic characters like these make silly choices that impedes their collective ability to escape.

SPLIT's pacing is amateurishly scattershot throughout as well, which awkwardly segues from the trapped girls' plight and into multiple therapy sessions between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher, which creates this really odd disconnect in the film.  Just when it's about to get horrifyingly intense between Kevin and his prey, Shyamalan strangely cuts away from these scenes and into the psychiatrist's office, and this has the negative side effect of neutering narrative momentum to a snail's pace.  And then there's some equally peculiar and shoehorned in flashbacks involving one of the girls and a sexually abusive relationship with her uncle that's straddling a fine line of taste that Shyamalan is frankly not skilled enough to address.  It's one thing to make a film involving implied child rape, but it's a whole other deplorable thing to use it for the ultimate end game here for achieving cheaply manipulative thrills.  These unsettling scenes have no real business being in a pure exploitation film like this. 

And speaking of exploitative, Shyamalan's overall treatment of severe mental illness lacks sensitivity and is about as subtle as a mallet shot to the cranium.  Initially, it certainly appears that SPLIT would evolve into a thoughtfully rendered examination of Kevin's fractured psyche and delve into whether or not he's pure evil or an innocent victim of his condition.  SPLIT takes some annoying detours in the late stages, some of which involve the supernatural (a Shyamalanian staple), that all but reduces and trivializes Kevin's illness as a simplistic device designed to propel the everything forward to a climax.   And this brings me to my biggest issue with SPLIT: its obligatory Shyamalanian twist.  Without resorting to spoilers, the third act all but destroys any semblance of individual storytelling novelty that SPLIT could have attained with its captivating premise and instead  becomes increasingly ludicrous to stomach, building towards a final pre-end credits epilogue that will have many familiar with Shyamalan's past films either euphorically cheering or maliciously yearning to throw something at the screen in fist pumping protest.  

I was among the latter.  

I have no problem with twist endings, but they have to be earned.  SPLIT never seems to earn its cockamamie and contrived ending, mostly because it cops out by not giving us an ending of reasonable finality and instead seems to be setting up another different kind of film altogether for a sequel.  That's a deceptive cheat in my book that made me angry as I left my screening.  Yet, there's much to admire in SPLIT, and too much to simply write it off as yet another in a long line of pitiful Shyamalan failures.   McAvoy is absolutely sensational here, and the film's opening sections are legitimately haunting.  That, and there are a few instances here and there when Shyamalan shows sprinkles of past aptitude in conjuring up moments of truly gripping terror.  But as for labeling this as his long awaited - make that very, very long - comeback vehicle that wholly redeems his past indiscretions?  Nope.  His current streak of sloppiness still taints this effort, albeit with less eye rollingly disdainful results.  

 

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