Split

Posted: February 2, 2017 in Film reviews
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Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley.

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“I see dead people!”

Three teenaged girls are abducted by a man named Dennis (McAvoy) who locks them in a dingy underground room. At first the girls believe they are being held by several different people but it soon becomes apparent that Dennis is actually one personality co-exiting with 22 others within a single body. Soon they meet Patricia, and also Hedwig, a capricious 9 year old. Hedwig gleefully advises them that they have been taken to be sacrificed to a 24th personality, known only as The Beast.

Meanwhile Dr Karen Fletcher (Buckley) has regular meetings with one of her patients, Kevin (McAvoy) who she has been treating for dissociative identity disorder (DID). Dr Fletcher believes that if she can understand DID she can find a breakthrough to cure illness and disability. She advises her peers that people with DID have manifest physical changes depending on which personality is dominant, and cites the example of a patient whose blindness was cured.

Back in the cellar the girls attempt to escape with no success. One of them, Casey (Taylor-Joy) has experienced trauma before, and attempts to connect with Hedwig. Meanwhile Dr Fletcher comes to realise that the facet of Kevin she’s talking to may not be the individual she thinks he is.

All too soon Kevin’s 24th personality will manifest, and will anyone survive?

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“Even James laughed out loud at the final scene.”

I have a fractious relationship with Shyamalan. I enjoyed The Sixth Sense (though I thought the twist actually spoiled it somewhat) and I really liked Unbreakable (still his best film in my opinion) Signs was ok, redeemed somewhat by its ending, and though The Village was preposterous there was good stuff in there. Even when he’d gone off the deep end Shyamalan always seemed to have a good directorial eye. The scenes of a little boy menaced by ghosts, or a blind girl encountering a horrifying creature in the woods were great exercises in tension. Then the wheels came off. I haven’t seen Lady in the Water but I don’t know anyone who likes it. I have seen The Happening, which was god awful, its only redeeming feature (barely) being that it was unintentionally hilarious. Suddenly Shyamalan seemed to have lost even his directorial eye.

I haven’t seen one of his films since (unless the actually quite good Devil counts) so it was with trepidation that I approached Split. Whilst I wouldn’t quite go so far as to call it a return to form as some have, I nevertheless found it an enjoyable watch, and given the cinema was rammed and I was sat in the second row that’s quite an achievement.

The first thing to say is that Split isn’t the film you think it is. It’s never quite tense enough to be a thriller, never quite scary enough to be horror, and not funny enough to really qualify as a black comedy. This isn’t to say it doesn’t encompass each of those elements, and like Kevin’s personality they vie for attention. This is at once a strength and a weakness. The true nature of the film is only revealed at the end. I won’t say what happens, all I will say is that the very last scene made me laugh out loud at Shyamalan’s audacity. I wouldn’t call it a twist as such, more a revelation, but it promises an intriguing semi-sequel that I hope we get to see.

A film like this stands or falls on the central performance. If you’re reliant on a character with multiple personalities it helps if the person playing the role can act, and thankfully McAvoy can. It’s easy to imagine this having been utterly terrible if the wrong person(s) had been inhabiting Kevin’s skin. Apparently Joaquin Phoenix had been attached at one stage and I can’t imagine he’d have been half as good as McAvoy. Whether he’s playing the OCD Dennis, the mischievous Hedwig or the disconcerting Patricia he’s a mesmerising presence. We don’t see him take on 24 different personalities of course, it’s more like 8 or 9 and some are little more than cameos, but still each is distinct and seeing him flit from one to another in the same shot is eerie. At several points he’s actually acting one personality pretending to be another personality. I can see why he took the role, what actor wouldn’t like to stretch their acting muscles this way? And talking of muscles it’s worth noting that a bulked-up McAvoy is an intimidating sight.

As Casey Taylor-Joy channels many a final girl. She manages to make Casey vulnerable and strong at the same time. She’s an outsider and it soon becomes apparent why this is, but her personal trauma might be what keeps her alive. Taylor-Joy was an engaging presence in the Witch and she continues to impress here.

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“Run all you like, Anya, you will watch The Happening!”

As her fellow captives Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are less well served. Both give it their all but whilst they’re allowed some agency in trying to escape their characters are too thin, and sadly they end up feeling disposable. There’s also the issue of how the camera perceives them, lots of up skirt or down blouse shots and soon they end up having to take off several items of clothing. I can see why some people have taken issue with this, but—and I may be giving Shyamalan too much of the benefit of the doubt—I think this might be intentional, making us see the girls as Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig/The Beast do. It’s worth noting as well that clothing plays an important part late on as well, so the gradual disrobing of the girls is possibly another piece of the plot puzzle. Even if this is the case is the film still feels just a little too leery and voyeuristic at times.

It’s the plot and the acting that make the film. The direction is interesting in places, but too often feels either a little too pedestrian, or going too far the other way and trying to be too clever. I took a while to acclimatise to it as well, and I think it’s the sort of film you must roll with. I think if you do there’s a reward in the end.

It’s a little too long, and McAvoy’s performance probably deserves to be in a slightly better film. It never quite feels scary or tense enough, but there are interesting riffs on Psycho and Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a cleverer film than you think it is, just probably not as clever a film as it thinks it is.

But like I say, at the end when you realise what kind of film you’ve actually been watching you will have to reappraise it, and either find yourself grinning ear to ear, or else demanding your money back.

It was the former for me, and most of my other personalities enjoyed it too!

 

 

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Comments
  1. Interesting! I’ve only seen the Sixth Sense of his films, and it was okay but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, possibly because the twist had been revealed to me already. This one looks worth watching.

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