Director: M. Night Shyamalan
SPLIT, the latest offering from much-maligned director M. Night Shyamalan, bolts past the trappings of his previous works in huge, terrifying strides. Dropping all pretense of exposition, SPLIT dumps three very unfortunate teenage girls into a bad situation. Abducted by a powerful, menacing assailant and awakening to find themselves locked in a room, Casey, Claire, and Marcia fear the worst, unaware that what actually awaits them is far more sinister — something unthinkable; something inhuman.
A good horror film is rare, a great one is even rarer. Denied the urgency of a lean, mean thriller by a somewhat lurching plot, yet commanding awe with its potent mix of brain and brawn, SPLIT fittingly finds itself somewhere in the middle. Starting off strong without the set-up and forced character development that is unneeded and, frankly, unwanted in this kind of movie, SPLIT waffles a bit in a muddled, far too repetitive second act before correcting course to go flatout ballistic in its ferocious third act.
Honestly not too bad a setup, as far as kidnappings go
As far as captivity/escape movies go, little actually happens in them, and SPLIT is no exception. Though it comes fast out of the gate, Split sputters soon after, unable to maintain such a breakneck pace with its scant story. These types of films typically address this issue by having resourceful characters exhaust every tool at their disposal and/or a subplot that brings everything home before the noose tightens, but SPLIT doesn’t really do either. Instead, SPLIT has its characters spend more time arguing about whether or not they should try to escape rather than devising a plan while a cat-and-mouse game between the antagonist and his therapist takes forever to develop. Thankfully, SPLIT manages to rectify all of this by the time it begins to reach its climax, recapturing its initial vigor with all the fervor of a wild beast.
SPLIT boasts solid acting all around, but as is the trend with the horror genre, many of the secondary and even primary characters of SPLIT end up as little more than meat for the grinder. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are the requisite half-nude lambs to the slaughter, while Betty Buckley plays the gifted yet completely out of her depth Dr. Fletcher. But, for as much screentime as they are given, SPLIT is not about them. This is not to say that this movie disregards acting or plot in favor of cheap scares like so many others; rather, it wisely invests its energies into what ultimately propels SPLIT from dump month fodder to a respectable piece of film.
The truth or dare scene, admittedly, felt a little out of place
SPLIT is, almost to a fault, a movie about survivors — not just the survivors of the nightmare we see unfold, but survivors of what we don’t see. Veins of abuse and loss, not to mention the all-too-common consequence of mental illness, run deep in SPLIT, but rather than blowing them up into talking points, they exist as memories and scars. One such survivor is Casey. After her harrowing portrayal in 2015’s THE WITCH, Anya Taylor-Joy is a welcome sight. Here she once again proves herself a promising young star with her smart, battered-but-not-broken Casey Cook. Joy, just 20, already carries herself with the resilience typical of a final girl, yet here she tempers it with a real-world logic that makes rooting for her feel so much more critical.
Throughout much of her ordeal, Casey exudes a practiced calm that suggests she has been in similar straits before, and this, sadly, is where the usual failings of horror rear their heads. In urging viewers to root for her as she maneuvers around certain death, yet not wanting her to come across as invincible, which would negate the high-stakes scenario, she becomes inconsistent. At times, she displays a hyper-keen survival sense, quickly and calmly assessing situations way the hell outside of anyone’s wheelhouse. In others (and this happens a few times), she apparently just dozes off while her would-be rapist/murderer watches. This is not to her discredit, as Joy is still making a name for herself and doing the best with what she is given here. The real star of the show, though, is James McAvoy. In what may very well go down as one of the greatest performances in modern horror, McAvoy is, well, a beast.
McAvoy plays Kevin, a profoundly damaged man who has developed a rather unusual coping mechanism. Kevin suffers from Dissociative-Identity Disorder, multiple personalities that is, and boy does he have a lot of them — 23 to be exact (…or is it 24?) For Kevin, his strongest identity also happens to be his worst one, the one who kidnaps the protagonists. It makes for an interesting premise — our villain is as much a victim as those he torments — and it opens up some grounds for discussion as well. SPLIT takes an already rare, complex, and largely misunderstood (as well as misrepresented) illness and further confounds it by making the assertion that its sufferers do not exhibit different personalities, but are actually manifesting separate individuals within themselves. It’s a slight, but major distinction Dr. Fletcher makes in the film at which her peers merely scoff. Either way, McAvoy masterfully transitions from goofy child to brimming psycho to effete queen to the goddamn Avatar of Terror and back again.
Each persona McAvoy takes on is a unique and fully-realized character, and he is so absolutely committed to his performance(s) that everything else falls away when he is on the screen. There are moments when the camera hones in on his face as an identity takes over, forcing you to watch his face shift at this painful, glacial pace where it seems as if he is willing himself to sweat, and it is so nerve-wracking that you want nothing more than to look away, but you can’t… and it is brilliant. It is impossible to look away even as he stalks down a narrow corridor, dashing out light bulbs one by one as he roars about evolution from out in the darkness. Once the credits roll and you are finally able to turn your head away, you might just find yourself looking around the theater floor for your jaw after witnessing his raw animal fury. This may raise some concerns that SPLIT is a one-trick pony or hedging its bets on McAvoy a little too much, but there are plenty of other glimmers of brilliance scattered throughout to make for a clever, multi-dimensional thrill-ride rather than just a vehicle for him. At any rate, no amount of praise can do McAvoy’s performance justice — it simply has to be seen to be believed.
M. Night Shyamalan has had something of a controversial career. After leaving scorch marks with THE SIXTH SENSE and his equally strong follow-up in UNBREAKABLE, Shyamalan seemed like he was here to change the game for good. However, at some point, he lost what touch of magic he had and churned out a string of critically-panned bombs. His reputation, like Kevin, certainly suffered. Now, perhaps moved to recapture his early greatness, Shyamalan has redeemed himself. Holding true to its quasi-Nietzschean ethos of transcendence-through-suffering, Shyamalan has created something that strives to be more than just another cheap popcorn flick, and in spite of a few minor flaws, SPLIT succeeds. One part love letter to Hitchcock, one part THE SHINING, and served up in one (…or is it 24?) unbelievable performance, SPLIT is a worthy horror cocktail that is sure to appease even the most discerning of pallets.