Movie review: Split
James McAvoy’s over-the-top performance as a man with multiple personalities lends M. Night Shyamalan’s tediously self-conscious thriller a hint of fun
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 1hr 57 mins
By Katherine Monk
M. Night Shyamalan’s struggle begins anew. The director who brought us The Sixth Sense back in 1999 and recently returned to box-office glory last year with The Visit is still trying to top himself. And this time, it’s painful to watch.
As laborious as it is silly, Split is Shyamalan’s latest attempt at creating a narrative maze that pulls us in with a hint of humour and a looming creep factor. Designed with nod to slasher genre, the film opens with three high school girls getting into a car for a ride home, only to end up locked in a room by a psychopath with unknown intentions.
Casey (Anja Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) aren’t an intimate trio when they land in the cellar. Claire and Marcia think Casey is an oddball, but they also know they need her help if they are going to overpower their jailor.
Girl dynamics are always interesting, but Shaymalan prefers to shine a light — a great big klieg worthy of Gloria Swanson — on his leading man, a character suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) played by James McAvoy (X-Men, The Last King of Scotland).
He goes by several different names because the film pivots on the idea of multiple personalities. Benny is a nice guy. Hedwig is a little kid. Patricia is dominant and conniving, and Dennis is your classic psycho killer with pristine work shirts and an aggravated case of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Watching McAvoy play his many parts with such commitment is fun to watch — like a drag artist twirling kitchen knives and live chickens instead of feather boas. There’s plenty of suspense and danger, but there’s even more camp.
Self-conscious asides, topped by an appearance from the director himself, bring a nagging sense of ego need to the whole experience. Inevitably, it’s hard to see the film as anything but Shyamalan’s own demons coming to the fore — a need for vengeance, a desire to punish beautiful young women for whatever reason male directors continually punish beautiful women, and a need to make the mockers pay through humiliating defeat.
And, horror of horrors: Even the armchair shrink is punished!
There’s no crime in that. Yet, in the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, all that suppressed energy came out as hard-edged thrillers: Beautiful ice queens forever skating on a blood red rink, just waiting to be swallowed by whatever dark forces roiled beneath the mirror surface.
In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, who clearly knows his Hitch and has a firm grasp of his Cocteau, the swirling search for identity and acceptance gets thrown into the genre blender, mashing bits of thriller and slasher with the supernatural and the superhero.
The result is something undeniably muddy. Fearing he’d sap suspense, Shaymalan refuses to draw any characters definitively. Every one of them is under-developed, including the central cipher. For a time, our confusion is an asset because we can’t skip ahead in our own minds.
We have no idea what will happen. Yet, by the midway point, you realize the whole thing isn’t really going anywhere and you’ve stopped caring.
The only thing that keeps us in for the end credits is finding out what’s going to happen to the three innocent young women stuck in an impossible situation. On that score, Shaymalan does just enough to keep our sympathy alive while distracting us with flashbacks, random character bits and arguments for legitimizing DID.
Even after all that, we’re still game because we’re expecting the magic clue and the big reveal — an explanation that will make us go ‘ah-ha! I didn’t see that coming!’ We expect Shyamalan to do it because he expects himself to do it. He must, because he writes movies that need a narrative punchline. They build suspense through piecemeal disclosures about character, and they need to payoff. Split doesn’t.
Despite James McAvoy’s impressive performance and the female trio’s perfect reflections of terror, the movie fails because Shyamalan had no clue how to end his movie. Seriously. He had no idea how to pull all that muddy madness into a cogent conclusion. The final beats leave the viewer unbelieving and absolutely betrayed, something the director tries to slough off with a smarmy wink that only makes the acid aftertaste all the more bitter.
By the time it’s all over — and the final cameos have left the frame — the only sensation left in the pit of your stomach is disappointment, and a deep desire to split as soon as possible.
THE EX-PRESS, January 20, 2017