Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
It’s no secret that M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a joke in recent years. Having helmed the effectively creepy The Sixth Sense and the nicely understated superhero origin story of Unbreakable, he quickly began a rough streak of films which range from well-intentioned but stupid (Signs) to embarrassingly self-fellating (Lady in the Water) to… well… whatever the fuck The Happening was. However, hidden inside even his biggest misfires has always been a weirdly endearing fondness for, and proclivity towards, trashy B-movie fare.
Aliens, superhumans, killer trees, woodland monsters (sort of); there’s definitely a fondness for the more ‘low brow’ elements of ‘genre’ film-making (yeah, that’s a silly term but it has its uses), and he always appears to approach such material with a wide eyed sincerity. And with Split, he appears to have fully embraced a kind of twisted, genre bending, exploitation movie style which has drawn apt comparison to the full throttle excess of Brian De Palma. But is it any good? Well… you could say I’m kind of split on that one. HA HA HA KILL ME HA HA HA.
The story concerns a man (James McAvoy) who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and locks them up in a basement; the reason for which feels like kind of a spoiler in and of itself, so I’ll keep it vague (I’m aware some of the marketing is upfront about the reasoning, but honestly the less you know in this case, the better. Split is, more than a lot of recent films, best experienced with as little knowledge as possible). This man is ostensibly called Kevin, although he is also a prim English woman called Patricia; a burly, stern man with OCD called Dennis; a lisping nine year old called Hedwig; an upbeat, extrovert fashion designer called Barry; as well as at least nineteen other personalities in one body.
Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, or to be precise, a heavily fictionalised and ‘schlocked-up’ version of the (real life, and almost entirely different) disorder*. The resultant performance(s) from James McAvoy are certainly entertaining to watch, as he flits between personalities before our very eyes, although Betty Buckley is arguably the film’s MVP; as Kevin’s psychotherapist, she exists essentially as an exposition machine, but she sells the occasionally clunky script even when it really isn’t doing her any favours. Taylor-Joy is a darkly beguiling onscreen presence, although flashbacks to abuse in her character’s childhood feel misjudged and threaten to quite seriously derail the film at points.
The resulting overall tone is kind of a mess, but in a fascinating way. It’s sinister and funny; over the top and deadly serious; and when it kicks into full on horror mode, Shyamalan displays a deft knack for ratcheting up tension, although I did find myself wishing the final act would hurry up a bit. Some of Shyamalan’s editing and shot choices feel strangely ‘off’; like he wanted to show off a camera movement or a cross-cut, but forgot to attach a thematic point to any of it.
Oh, and in true Shyamalan style, there’s a twist (come on, you knew there would be). I don’t mention this for any other reason than to reiterate that you would be doing yourself and the film a disservice to look into it too much, and risk potentially spoiling it for yourself accidentally. The Big Reveal is handled kind of clumsily, but damn, I genuinely did not see it coming.
Although it has notable issues, Split is certainly an encouraging step up from Shyamalan’s recent slew of dreck. As backhanded as that sounds, I have to admit a certain relief in seeing that the man still clearly has some talent and vision. However Split comes to be remembered in his overall filmography, it is with renewed interest that I – and no doubt many others – will be watching his work in the coming years.
*There is certainly debate to be had regarding the film’s sensationalising of DID and the possible stigmatising effect it will have for those who really do have the condition. The argument could be made that it works as an intriguing – and admittedly effective – springboard for science fiction/horror storylines, but the inescapable fact is that it doesn’t exactly help to dispel the all too common notion that mental health issues inherently equal violent or otherwise negative behaviour.