R, 117 mins.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.