Film Review: Split

by Chad Liffmann on January 20, 2017

Shyamalan works really hard to avoid his own traps, and manages to deliver an entertaining thriller.

Creepy personality #1

I really wish M. Night Shyamalan would share a writing credit for once. His screenplays are constantly in need of supervision and a seasoned story writer to cut the fat. The stunted dialogue, contrivances, and lecture hall exposition can sometimes take precedent over plot progression. The same is nearly the case in Split, Shyamalan’s newest film and the most promising return to his mid-late 90s form after many disappointing tries. Split is a tense thriller and features a tour de force from James McAvoy. The film still succumbs to a few stereotypical pitfalls of the thriller genre, but the final product is still an entertaining, and at times chilling, experience featuring shades of Hitchcockian tactics.

James McAvoy (X-Men: First Class) plays Kevin, a young man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (DID). To be specific, he has 23 different personalities competing for the “light”, or control over Kevin’s physical person. One of these personalities, Dennis, a tough control-freak with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), kidnaps three young women, Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and holds them hostage in a secluded basement. Kevin is also seeing a psychotherapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is a tenacious expert on DID. As the three young women attempt to escape, Kevin’s multiple personalities shed some disturbing light on the reasoning for their imprisonment, while simultaneously clashing with each other. 

As the story steadily progresses, Shyamalan tends to get distracted by the subject matter. He actually admits as much in a Collider interview when he discusses a 3 hour cut of the film. As it stands upon its theatrical release, Split’s nearly two hour cut still feels about 30 minutes too long, which is most evident in the third and final act. The first two acts are a steady slow burn, and McAvoy’s performance truly erupts for a few impressively powerful scenes, but then Split fizzles and drags to a finish. Some of the information about DID is fascinating, and it’s obvious Shyamalan did a fair amount of research on the topic, but he continuously cuts away from the engrossing McAvoy character(s) to the dull therapist. Why he felt that the therapist was just as worthy of screentime as Kevin is beyond me. It’s when he tries to use Split as a college seminar, teaching the audience about the disorder, rather than an artful and tense mechanism for delivering scares, that the film stalls, distracts, and seems overly staged and flat. We have Google now, M. Night. We can research this stuff afterwards.

Waiting for 1 of 23 to appear.

Stylistically, Split is solid. The opening credit sequence is appropriately in-your-face and diced up, somewhat reminiscent of the Hitchcock title sequences in Psycho and North by Northwest. The camera also captures an assortment of POV angles throughout the film, none more frightening than Casey’s showdown with one of Kevin’s more violent personalities. The editing job also gives McAvoy a chance to display his transformative prowess, maintaining close-up shots as he transitions between characters. The way he carries himself, his voice, and his countenance morph in disturbingly quick and precise fashion. They various personalities literally seem like their performed by different actors. It’s impressive and creepy. Without McAvoy, Split would not have been nearly as believable. But speaking of believable, or rather unbelievable, Split still features smart people doing stupid things and displaying poor decision-making skills. It’s a frustrating aspect of so many horror films. It’s hard not to chuckle at or get aggravated by the predictability of Kevin’s victims. And then, of course…

…no M. Night Shyamalan film is complete without a twist! You may think that I’m ruining the film by pointing out that there is a twist. Don’t worry, this “twist” does not impact the story whatsoever. However, I’d argue that at this point, we all expect Shyamalan to include one (he just can’t help it), so rather than keeping yourself occupied predicting when it’ll happen, just know there is one and it’s not something you should concern yourself with. I was pleasantly surprised by the ending, which lends itself to some interesting speculation that we can discuss later. Split is a film where it’s highly advised to just enjoy the ride and suspend all belief in realism or logical-thinking. You’ll either like it or you won’t.  Or, maybe a part of you will like Split and another part of you won’t. Perhaps you can name that other side of you. Perhaps that other side should take control. [Insert twist].

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Split opens in theaters Friday, January 20th.

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