Movie Review: Split
By Ben Gruchow
January 24, 2017

Why do you keep asking me if I'm a mutant.

The phrase “so-and-so filmmaker’s best work since x” is tediously overused. It’s the result of too many fingers hitting too many keyboards too soon after seeing the film in question, when the memory of it hasn’t been given a chance to linger and deepen or fade away into nothingness. This goes at least double for filmmakers who have had a run of mediocre-to-bad-to-holy-God-what-IS-this-thing? films in their recent history, because whatever percentage of the audience is made up of the faithful will almost certainly give every potential weak spot the benefit of the doubt. We do all want films to be good, yes? So when I say that Split is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since Signs all the way back in 2002, it’s with the rider that: a) his period in between these two pieces of work is littered with mostly mediocre tripe, plus whatever the hell was going on in The Happening; and therefore b) this film doesn’t need to be all that great in order to be the best in a long time.

Still, though, it is his best work in almost 15 years: head and shoulders above 2015’s The Visit, a film I liked, and so many leagues beyond The Last Airbender that it might as well belong to a different cinematic history. It plays to most of Shyamalan’s strengths as a storyteller - his ability to shape something weird and uncomfortably askew out of a random situation, and transition that weirdness into horror or comedy seemingly at random; his desire to tie all of his themes together at once at the end, which lends most of his work a decidedly deterministic metaphysical outlook - and avoids most of his weaknesses (he has a big problem with contouring expository dialogue in a way that doesn’t sound penned by an intelligent and surpassingly media-saturated teenager).

It also has an ace up its sleeve that I don’t think any of his previous films have been able to match: a positively magnetic and well-rounded central performance by an actor faced with a list of impossible criteria and finding a way to excel anyway. This is James McAvoy’s turn as…well, a number of people, but chiefly as a man named Kevin; he shapes the demands in front of him effortlessly to the rhythms of Shyamalan’s story and to his own unique tics and strengths as an actor. He’s fearsomely good, and the single faultless item that Split orbits around for its entirety.

We do not get to spend much time with him except as an agent of action in other scenes, though. Most of our early time is spent among the three high-school girls he abducts in the movie’s opening sequence: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, excellent in last year’s The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, excellent in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula, not of a film from last year and therefore the one of the trio with the least screen time and character development). They’re sedated and taken to a windowless room below ground. There, they meet Dennis, played by McAvoy as an obsessive-compulsive recluse. They are to be sacrifices, he says. To what, we’re not told.

So far, we’re in general hostage-movie territory, albeit executed with more ambiguity and pause (Casey’s moment of realization in the opening sequence is a lovely exercise in drawing out tension and revelation). The context changes, however, when we realize that Dennis is only one of many personalities their captor possesses; others include a stern matronly figure named Patricia (which allows McAvoy to use his real accent), a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, and others.

The story isn’t really about a hostage situation; it’s about DID, or differential identity disorder. We’re introduced to Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she carefully outlines to colleagues and the audience the ramifications of having separate personalities with separate outlooks and (in some cases) apparently separate physiological builds. I will go no further, though; here the movie runs right into an identity crisis of its own, and the difference between the two interpretations of the subject matter available here is the difference between giving the movie the benefit of the doubt and failing it. Despite the sequences with Fletcher (who is revealed through flashback to have been Kevin’s therapist), Split is not really interested in plumbing the real psychological depths of differential identity disorder. Were this truly its aim, the way the movie goes about it would be disastrous: not only do we gain no real insight from Fletcher about the disorder, but the movie just about goes out of its way to suggest that anyone with the disorder must as a matter of course have at least one of them be evil.

Where the movie’s interest really lies, I think, is in testing and drawing suspense out of the concept of willpower and self-perception as an asset against real-world adversity. We see this repeatedly, manifested in ways both major and minor; I’m thinking of the obvious moments (Hedwig, unable to force a door open, transitions to Dennis and is access capacities of physical strength a nine-year-old would not have) and minor (early on, when it looks like Dennis may assault one of the captive trio, Casey urgently advises her in whispered voice to make herself urinate in order to disgust him into letting her go). And of course there’s the movie’s final act; this involves a new personality for Kevin that, to say the least, requires an explicit belief in your ability to perform unusual actions. That final act (and an entirely unnecessary penultimate scene) spells trouble for this interpretation of the film, because there really is a physiological limit to even the most committed mindset, and the ending breaks that limit’s believability.

There is one other way to look at Split, and that is as a straightforward cat-and-mouse thriller with a final story development that seems to suggest (or outright dictate) supernatural influence, all of it given the patina of weirdness that, for good or ill, Shyamalan has always been consistent at introducing into his movies. Here, the thematic depths of the story falter even more, and we’re left to mostly rely on McAvoy’s performance to sell its effect. This it does, and this it does manage to pass by. The audience I saw the film with responded to images of McAvoy in women’s clothing with giggles and sometimes outright laughter; I did not, but it’s strange how appropriate the reaction felt, how it’s something the movie anticipates.

McAvoy, as Patricia, accentuates his/her performance with asides and winks and tics, playing broadly for chuckles at the moment…but, like similar moments in The Visit, there’s an uneasiness thrumming underneath that levity. There’s a whole lot more of these moments in the new film, to its benefit, and McAvoy exploits that uneasiness with the practiced care of someone who knows exactly when to push a moment past the point of humor and into faint horror. And when the screenplay takes a turn for the explicitly horrific in the final reel, it is earned. And the final scene, taking place right after the cut to end credits and featuring a cameo we do not expect, lifts the narrative out of its self-contained setting and places it in the context of an intriguing larger universe. The entire affair here is still ultimately pretty slight, with each interpretation of the story offering some significant flaw. They are not crucial flaws, though, and that makes the difference when weighed against its assets as a thriller.

3 / 5