(Author’s Note, January 2019: I think it is definitely possible that I have a little bit unfair to Split and if I rewatch it now knowing the context of how gross it is, I might be able to compartmentalize that for its functional genre trappings. I still don’t think the movie is that good, but I think I would be less venomous in that proclamation if I wrote this review today)
Have you guys seen that movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers? You know, somebody witnesses people acting strange and suddenly it feels like he’s the only true person around and everybody else is eager to consume him in their conformity. I really really really fear being Kevin McCarthy in that sense while somehow there is a revisionist attitude about the once-deemed-“future-Spielberg”-then-deemed-hack director M. Night Shyamalan (who ironically fumbled a riff on Invasions‘ concept with The Happening), something that one would not have felt possible partly because it felt like The Last Airbender actually made every single person in the world mad, but also because I like to have enough faith in my fellow man to assume they’d recognize a bad movie when they see it. Now I haven’t seen The Visit, but it has a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and if the fresh-rated Split is the movie that somehow convinces people Shyamalan has made his first out-and-out good movie since The Sixth Sense (though I know Unbreakable has a very devoted crowd and I can understand it, but I really don’t subscribe to it being more than an interesting mess)… man, was that faith abused.
Shyamalan’s script opens on depicting the sudden kidnapping of three high school girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) from Claire’s birthday party. Given how Casey is visibly separated from the other two in multiple shots (including a very showy and early use of shot geometry that uses wall striping to divide them in the same shot), it’s apparent she’s not actually good friends with the two, but that’s not of as much interest to the film as the man who kidnapped them. Suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, Kevin (James McAvoy) has 23 apparent personalities sitting inside of him but warns the three girls and his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), during their suspiciously impromptu visits of an imminent and feral 24th personality emerging known as “The Beast”.
And from there, the movie plays the most obnoxious waiting game ever with nothing of consequence happening beyond exposition being laden over and over in discussion. There’s a large amount of narrative deadwood between the moment the girls are kidnapped and the climax (that’s not entirely true, there’s escape attempts but they literally bring the plot right back to point A). Shyamalan clearly wants to ape as much of Hitchcock as he could and that comes through in part from one scene introducing one of the three most present personalities, maternal and sophisticated Englishwoman Mrs. Patricia, in a shot of McAvoy in a doorframe in a dress. The other more annoying and present way is adapting the infamously bad psychiatrist scene from Psycho into half of a movie with every scene between Fletcher and Kevin as a great long exposition dump of what DID is and how Kevin suffers from it.
This feels like a result of Shymalan’s appeal for both narrative gravity and a sort of social responsibility from such an exploitative premise about mental illness. And you can’t have your cake and eat it when scenes like the reveal of Mrs. Patricia play for chuckles at most. At least McAvoy gets to show off his range with Kevin and he’s not all that bad at playing off surface level stereotypes, but it’s clear he’s better at playing personalities that fit his type (the angrily imposing pervert Dennis, flamboyant fashion enthusiast Barry) than personalities that don’t (Mrs. Patricia, obnoxious child Hedwig). He can be a revelation at times. A central scene revealing the subtle presence of a personality disguising himself as another is one of the strongest moments in the whole film, just a close-up as McAvoy’s face shifts. Other times it seems he wants to camp up – and a crucial scene where he clearly doesn’t and his body language still camps – and I don’t think this is the material hits the target on camp.
There’s no getting around the idea of what Shyamalan wanted to do and it’s sort of a SPOILER, so I will leave this here to SPOILER ALERT anyone who intends to watch Split, but the blunt fact is that Split is a movie that IS concerned with trauma, particularly related to sexual abuse, but in a manner that’s alarmingly fatalist in a fashion it mistakes for inspiring. The presentation of the sexual abuse of a character being a fortunate deus ex machina for his/her mercy (and the trauma of an early parental death for another to spearhead the climax and his.. shall we say evolution) is similar to the “everything happens for a reason” attitude present in Shymalan’s Signs, only it’s infinitely less tasteful to present somebody’s rape as his/her contrived resolution to not being murdered than the death of a spouse. And this is throwing aside that such an attitude has very reprehensible implications about the attitudes of the characters that make up its body count, all of them female, two of them barely being allowed any inner life in the script beyond being scared for their lives, all of them feeling punished for actively attempting to save themselves as opposed to the survivor’s sedation.
That extremely ugly undertone is a large part of why I hated Split, despite it not being a complete waste. The opening kidnapping scene is such an impressive clockwork of tension and restricted visual information that I was willing to believe the hype until the rest of the movie proved he had butter fingers when it comes to tone and concrete shoes when it comes to narrative momentum. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey on paper has one trait and yet Taylor-Joy proves herself to be able to use that trait as an anchor for her own emotional arc into the film and acts spades over McAvoy. And the climax is an impressive stretch of existential terror, transforming the space of one hallway into an ambiguous abyss in one shot and a vessel for immediate danger in another with grotty horror movie greens. Elements like this sell Split for a bit longer than I expected it to get away with.
I guess it’s clear that Split has it’s good moments still there that show the man who made The Sixth Sense is still semi-capable, but the bad vastly outweighs the good and the good is in such jagged portions anyway that it feels like… well, I might make a joke about feeling like Split had split personalities, but I’m not an asshole. Unlike Shyamalan.
(P.S. I’m pushing my word-limit regiment but I’m sure I’m expected to talk about the credits scene. All I have to say is… if you remove it, you get the exact same movie except without that scene and it’s very telling. That and the whole thing is so artless that while it was reportedly something planned before Split was even a thing, it feels like Shymalan’s last cry for desperate reappraisal. Given the acclaim and hype that scene received, it worked. Ugh.)