Apr 11, 2017 Web Exclusive
M. Night Shyamalan’s career rehabilitation has been a long time coming. After being touted as the next Hitchcock following 1999’s The Sixth Sense (still his best film), the expectations became impossibly high. Each film that followed for a few years was a case of diminishing returns until the films became more in service to the twist at the end than the narrative structure and story that preceded it. This tactic is initially thrilling – The Sixth Sense has his most shocking and successful twist – but the wrong lesson to take from that success is to build an entire story around it. It’s the storytelling equivalent to a jump scare or a fart joke.
Split was touted as a complete return to form, both critically and in box office receipts. Check Rotten Tomatoes, it’s his second-best reviewed film after The Sixth Sense. This is surprising, because Split is maddeningly stupid. Despite the promising premise, the follow through is sloppy. Kevin (James McAvoy) kidnaps three young women and locks them in a basement bedroom somewhere. It’s quickly revealed that Kevin has 23 distinct personalities, one of which is at the forefront at a given time. This is part of his dissociative identity disorder (DID), and a few of his more deviant personalities have apparently gained primary control, leading to the kidnapping. His dormant personalities recognize this and try to reach out to his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher, and so begins the delicate game of keeping things hidden as a potential 24th personality awakens: The Beast.
The problems arise with the script, full stop. Dr. Fletcher is an exposition spewing machine. She lazily pontificates about the controversial diagnosis of DID, and explains to Kevin (well, the audience) all the struggles the two have had in the past with his treatment. Shyamalan received plenty of hasty Hitchcock comparisons after The Sixth Sense, but there is one that aptly applies here. One of Hitchcock’s worst tendencies as a storyteller was to inject some of his movies with awkward psychobabble to explain away certain behaviors. In Psycho, a doctor explains to the police that Norman Bates and his mother are both inhabiting Norman’s physical self. Similar scenes are present in Spellbound, The Wrong Man, and Marnie. Dr. Fletcher is like those scenes, except she’s in roughly half of Split while Hitchcock kept these scenes to a minimum, rarely derailing or stalling the story. In Split, this inane and vague explanation actively detracts from the film. She doesn’t need to be there, except for one plot device element late in the film. When this happens, it feels like her scenes were written in reverse order to compensate for a single element in the final third.
Then there’s Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the kidnapped girls and the heart of the movie. She’s a bit of a social outcast, only a pity invite to the birthday party from where she and the other two teenage girls were taken. Taylor-Joy is great (as she was in The Witch), offering depth and darkness to her character – a sense of intrigue that is somehow lacking in McAvoy’s Kevin. She is given a sequence of flashbacks where she learns to hunt from her father. This supposedly gives her the skills to combat Kevin at the inevitable climax. There is another element of her flashbacks, however, that for some reason becomes the more accentuated one and it undermines her. It feel cheap and exploitative. It renders her strength and her arc almost meaningless.
All this is done with a frenetic camera that refuses to sit still. It’s not artistic or dynamic. It’s distracting. Only West Dylan Thordson’s synth-heavy score rises above the dregs of the clumsy storytelling. The soundtrack pulses with an intensity that should mirror both Kevin’s inner turmoil and Casey’s bubbling, traumatic past. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is broken beyond repair that a great score cannot possibly begin to save it. It’s not the unrealistic handling of DID – anyone expecting an in depth and accurate depiction of any kind of disorder in a horror movie is looking in the wrong place – it’s how poorly Shyamalan integrates his version of it into the story. He tries to explain too much while still staying vague enough that he can go wherever he wants with his story. It clearly worked for a vast majority of viewers, but not here. For fans, there are a few featurettes on the Blu-Ray including a making-of, a look at McAvoy’s multiple performances, and an alternate ending.
One thing that Shyamalan smartly avoided was hitching the entire movie to a twist ending. Kevin and Casey’s story does not suddenly flip on a dime in some poof of smoke rendering the previous two hours meaningless. He plays it pretty straight there. A twist does show up after the primary resolution, one that will rankle some feathers while delighting others. I’m in the latter camp, as it was a pleasant surprise in a movie that constantly failed to live up to expectations.
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