Film Review: Bunker Thriller “Split” is M Night Shyamalan at his best - and his absolute worst
For better or for worse, the dark lord of blockbusters is back, baby. After the steep fall from his Sixth Sense/Signs/Unbreakable Hollywood legend status, Twist-master M Night Shyamalan managed to climb out of his The Happening/The Last Airbender/Lady In The Water pit of mediocrity with the 2015 low-budget indie sleeper hit The Visit - and now, he is back with a vengeance with the absolutely bonkers Split.
The premise of the film is peak Shyamalan: Three teenage girls find themselves in a mysterious life-and-death predicament when they get kidnapped and held captive by “Dennis”, a man… with 22 other distinct personalities (played by James McAvoy). Female lead Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan) plays the main protagonist, Casey, the lone outsider among her peers, who proves to be the most resourceful of the three in a captive situation.
For the majority of it's run-time, Split is a well executed psychological "bunker" thriller, a la 12 Cloverfield Lane and Panic Room. When the movie centers around Casey and the girls' frantic attempts to escape, Shyamalan flexes his undeniable muscles for conveying effective tension on screen. With the help of It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (whom he hired upon seeing and loving "It Follows"), Split is able to keep us on the edge of our seat with a high-wire balancing act of incredible suspense and outlandish wackiness. Similar to both the best and worst in his oeuvre, Shyamalan ultimately tips over to the latter towards the end of the film.
Having to play a villain with multiple personalities, McAvoy (of X-Men and Atonement fame) seems to be having the time of his life in this film, chewing scenery as the main anchor of said "outlandish wackiness". While jarringly cartoonish at first, McAvoy's sheer commitment to his role(s) ultimately wins over, as his wickedly engaging performance invites audiences to both laugh at, and be disturbed by, the eccentricities of his characters.
Notice how I've been referring to him as having "multiple personalities", instead of having "Dissociative Identity Disorder" (DID), a real-life (and often controversial) psychological disorder that the movie insists McAvoy's character suffers from. Shyamalan has never had a good track record with portraying mental health issues in the past (see: The Visit), and Split is no different. It comes to no surprise that the film's antagonistic portrayal of sufferer of DID has been met with criticism from people in the mental health community. While the universe of Split, like many of Shyamalan's movies, operates in his particular mode of fantastical realism that might just be removed enough from our real world; whether or not Shyamalan should be more responsible when incorporating real-life mental health issues and diagnoses in his films is a discussion worth having.
Meanwhile, Taylor-Joy is the true breakout star here as the emotional anchor of this movie. Subtle and affecting, Taylor-Joy is able emote a certain depth to her character with quiet grace, allowing us to feel the gears churning in her mind through her facial expressions, which the director is wise to regularly close-up on. All this, in concert with some well-placed flashback sequences, gives Split a strong protagonist in Casey that audiences feel instantly invested in. But then, in typical Shyamalan fashion, the movie shoves Taylor-Joy's character aside in its final act, dismissing the arc of her character in favour for the obligatory, "mind-blowing" twist that is more interested in its own reveal than the story that came before.
It's hard to talk specifically about my disappointments with Split without spoiling it, so instead I'll give you a vague, but accurate analogy:
Imagine you're a kid again, and you wake up to have breakfast. You walk to the kitchen, you see Mum cracking some eggs on the stove. You get excited - she's making some good ol' fashioned English breakfast! You sit on the table, watching eagerly as she prepares the meal in front of you: Scrambling those delicious eggs, sizzling that mouth-watering strip of bacon, heating up that can of baked beans. You close your eyes in anticipation, and open them to find: a bowl of Coco Pops in front of you. You sigh resignedly as Mum pours milk into the bowl. Sure, you love Coco Pops, so of course you're going to enjoy eating them, but you were promised some English breakfast, goddammit!
This was how I felt after seeing Split, begrudgingly eating up what it was trying to sell me in the end - all while feeling dissatisfied from a promise unfulfilled.
That being said - despite its inherent flaws, Split still manages to be a wildly entertaining thriller that (sign)als the return of M Night Shyamalan as an exciting and unique Hollywood storyteller, with credits to the film's enthusiastically talented cast and invigorating visual style.