After finally bottoming out of the event-movie game with 2013’s After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan’s latest twist has been to reinvent himself as a craftsman of low-budget horror. This transformation began with 2015’s surprisingly successful psycho-grandparents yarn The Visit and continues with Split, a similarly grubby/schlocky multiple-personality thriller. This downgrade makes a much better fit for the man who made the low-key Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but it doesn’t fix the unevenness that has long affected Shyamalan’s work. The Visit was frequently effective, but had significant tonal issues. Split is much less effective and its issues are even more pronounced.
The film begins at a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), who has invited her entire art class from school, including, out of a sense of grudging inclusiveness, outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch). When Casey is left without a ride home from the restaurant at which the party was held, Claire’s father offers to drive her home, along with Claire’s best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Upon arrival at the family car, dad is incapacitated by an assailant (James McAvoy), who hops into the driver seat, maces the girls out of consciousness and drives away. The girls awaken locked in a room within some sort of industrial utility area, scared to death. Claire and Marcia begin brainstorming plans of escape and/or attack. Casey, on the other hand, almost immediately shuts down.
It’s here that Split springs its gimmick on us. The abductor, Kevin Wendell Crumb, is a man with 23 distinct personalities alternating turns at the wheel. One, Dennis, is frighteningly gruff. Another, Patricia, is a stern disciplinarian. Yet another, Hedwig, is a simple nine-year-old boy. All of the personalities speak in hushed tones about the impending arrival of The Beast, a figure that might be Kevin’s 24th personality. Kevin, for his part, is seeking therapy from noted psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but she isn’t able to discern which of the personalities she is speaking with from session to session. And as the girls are eventually separated from one another, it’s the haunted, reclusive Casey who begins to emerge as the best strategist for using Kevin’s mental disorder to her advantage, with the innocent, impressionable Hedwig being her way in.
Though it had to have already been in some form of production at the time of their releases, Split strongly and peculiarly echoes two very recent films, Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane. Both of those films also center on a female protagonist held against her will by a fearsome captor, using her wits to plot an exit strategy. It is, however, less effective than those films. It doesn’t build the suffocating levels of frustrated hopelessness that Room generated. It makes a better companion piece with 10 Cloverfield Lane due to its genre trappings, but that film offered up a heroine much more resourceful than Split’s, as well as a villain far more imposing. John Goodman’s character was a hulking obstacle that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s lead couldn’t easily circumvent. When all three of Split’s captives are initially being kept together, they discuss the feasibility of overpowering Kevin together, and given McAvoy’s slight stature and build, they probably could have succeeded had they tried, regardless of which personality was present. Split has a baffling habit of denying its characters any true autonomy or ingenuity in their own salvation.
Part of that is by design, at least on Casey’s part. Split has the loftier ambition on its mind of exploring the debilitating effects of abuse, how victims are stripped of their resolve by the cruel hands fate has dealt them. This conceit is explored in surprisingly harrowing fashion with a recurring flashback structure. But the meat of Split is in McAvoy’s sketch-show audition reel of characters, and while he commits to each one admirably, they often veer into the realm of camp, effectively short-circuiting any of the film’s darker pursuits. This sort of tonal clash was present in The Visit, but feels more deadly here, resulting in a film where you’re never sure whether you’re supposed to feel amused or afraid, leading you not especially feel either.
Split could have used some of The Visit’s get-in-and-get-out efficiency. This film runs a full half-hour longer than that one, leading it to sag heavily from time to time, a numbing repetitiveness frequently setting in. Kevin’s visits with Dr. Fletcher bring the film screeching to a halt, and her character never makes much sense. She is inexplicably oblivious to how dangerous her patient clearly is and, it’s revealed, possesses the knowledge of the magic words that will neutralize Kevin, yet neglects to use them even when it might save her life. And when we do experience the arrival of The Beast, the result is sillier and far less frightening than the film seems to realize.
Of course, given the auteur at work here, there is a big twist ending in place, and I suspect that it will be the only thing that people will especially care to discuss upon watching the film. I will not reveal it, but it will make longtime Shyamalan fans grin. It doesn’t save the shaky mess of a film that preceded it—as point of fact, it couldn’t feel more tacked-on and disconnected from what we just watched—but it does tease out a much more enticing film than this one. Which actually only succeeds in aggravating us further. Why didn’t Shyamalan simply make THAT film instead? And, given his deep-set unreliability as a writer, do we even trust him to make it still?
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