M Night Shyamalan has had a fascinating career. Having found success with the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he went on to make a procession of big budget movies with severely diminishing returns. This came to a head with the release of The Last Airbender and After Earth, where his filmmaking ability and reputation crashed into a pit of internet comments and despair and in recent years he has become a punchline. So, what does a filmmaker do when his creditability is destroyed?
Apparently, the answer is to make a horror film about murderous grandparents because it seems as if his foray into cheesy B-movie horror, The Visit has allowed him to embrace his roots. Leading to his latest release, Split, an abduction thriller about a man with 23 distinct personalities. Which embraces its B-movie influences with open arms to great effect. James McAvoy carries the film as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young girls. One of the girls, Casey, is troubled, detached and not well liked and she provides the emotional weight of the film while the other two girls are vapid horror movie fodder. Betty Buckley plays Dr Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who gets wind of what’s happening. The psychological aspect, limited locations and investigatory element all lend the film a Hitchcockian vibe.
The film is not sensitive, reproachful or probing, it is not a look into the mind of a killer, it is not ambiguous, it is an exploitation flick in all the right ways. Subtlety is hit with a sledgehammer and thrown in the lake. The film takes less than ten minutes for the central abduction to occur and starts showing us James McAvoy doing different voices because it knows that is what we are there to see. The film has 3 locations and less than a dozen speaking roles because it doesn’t need any more than that. The premise of a villain with 23 personalities is loaded with the possibility of so much fun that it needn’t divert from that.
Where Split fails is in the dialogue, which suffers when Kevin is not on the screen, the film is a well of pop psychology and over exposition, with characters detailing exactly what is happening and what will happen next a little too often. Shyamalan does well to establish the rules of the universe in the early part of the film yet he insists on constantly adding new rules on top of that and reiterating old ones. It’s a little tiring and eventually your eyes glaze over until McAvoy is back on screen. McAvoy is fantastic in this, Kevin has no distinguishing features, he is a mannequin to play with. His clothes indicate which personality is in control and when that option is not available McAvoy does well to embody different characters within the same body, it’s an admirable, odd and humorous thing to behold.
The film struggles to create empathy for Casey, our emotional ballast, who is silent and miserable even before her abduction. The film settles for multiple close-ups of her eyes and lips as a replacement for characterisation and it falls mostly flat. Yet there is an effort to create drama through a series of massively uninteresting flashbacks to her childhood, which only take away from the film and do nothing to enhance Casey’s character. That is until the last flashback, where we are given information that does not impact the story but rather Casey’s character, the question must be asked that if there was characterisation to be had, why wasn’t it at the beginning when we were establishing who Casey was in our minds?
It leads to a larger problem with Shyamalan’s filmmaking about saving information till the end which I have went into detail about here.
All the ingredients are there for a great little movie, a late night guilty pleasure. Small scale with a great focus, it’s a film that knows itself. Superficially the film looks great, the directing is effective and the ambient soundtrack creates a great uneasy tension.
The film is fun, held together by a multi-faceted but ultimately simple villain. Not by any stretch of the imagination is it a quality film but it is pure enjoyment, cinematic and endlessly interesting. People may be turned off by the final third of the movie and that is understandable but I believe it’s worth a watch. Split is exactly the type of film that Shyamalan should always have been making and I hope he continues embracing the beauty of the schlocky B-movie.