Movie Review: Split
By Matthew Huntley
January 30, 2017
M. Night Shyamalan movies exist on a wide spectrum of appeal and tolerance, from the crafty and near-brilliant (The Sixth Sense) to the downright frustrating and infuriating (The Village). The peculiar filmmaker may be full of himself sometimes and often exhibits poor judgment, but he can never be accused of not trying and he obviously has a lot of enthusiasm for his projects. With Split, he continues his trend of attempting to produce something unique and mostly succeeds. This is a horror-thriller we assume is going to progress a certain way but actually ends up treading unfamiliar territory. Shyamalan seems to have done this intentionally, which makes Split more challenging because we're always wondering where it's going. Granted, it's not always engaging, but it's never exactly boring, either.
The setup: three teenage girls are kidnapped and held hostage by a skinny, clean-shaven man (James McAvoy) with thin-rimmed glasses who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, or DID. The man's name is Dennis, or at least that's one of his 23 personalities who chloroformed and abducted the girls from a restaurant parking lot. When the girls come to, they discover Dennis is also Patricia, Hedwig and Kevin, among others, and each of his multiple personalities wants the girls to do something for him, depending on which identity is currently calling the shots.
Dennis holds them in an underground lair of sorts, with no windows and no Internet connectivity. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), whose 16th birthday brought her, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) together, insists they try to thwart Dennis, or whoever he is, so they can escape. Marcia is onboard, but Casey, who's already the outsider of the group, has mixed feelings and tells the others she first has to determine what all “this” (with “this” being their current situation) is. It's obvious Casey has a dark history and she seems to have brought some prior survival experiences to the table, as the movie flashes back to her childhood when she was on a disturbing hunting trip with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke). How this event ties in with her present predicament, I'll not reveal, but even after the film establishes the connections, they aren't always clear.
With such a familiar setup in place, we expect the plot to transpire like most thrillers do, with the girls eventually pulling together, harnessing their wits and limited resources, and using their captor's own handicap against him in order to survive and escape. This might have made for a serviceable entertainment, but Shyamalan is smart enough to know it's been done, and he goes out of his way to shake things up a bit.
For starters, his screenplay refrains from necessarily making Dennis a one-dimensional villain whose only purpose is to torment his victims and then be killed later on. It actually develops his condition more deeply by paralleling the girls' ordeal with Dennis's sessions with a psychiatrist as he assumes the personality of Barry, a flamboyant fashion designer. He meets with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), to whom the movie devotes ample screen time as she attempts to argue that multiple personality disorder is, in fact, real and its ramifications are so powerful that patients living with it may actually prove beneficial to the human race. She argues DID unlocks areas of the brain that yield undiscovered potential and believes a patient's physiology can change based on the personality's beliefs. At a conference, she poses the question, “Is this where our sense of the supernatural comes from?” Perhaps the supernatural isn't so "super" after all.
It's hard to say anything more about Split without giving away crucial plot details. Just know that it continually leads us down an uncertain path, an aspect that proved refreshing because our curiosity level remains up most of the time.
With that said, though, Split isn't always a captivating experience. We may wonder where it's going, but we don't always care, especially in the beginning when some scenes either feel tacked and/or are hampered by languid dialogue, a slow rhythm, and stiff acting. It's only after the narrative starts to veer off from our preconceived notions that the energy level picks up and we begin to appreciate Shyamalan's strategy and creativity. It takes a while, but the movie gets there.
And where Split” ends up does make it worth our while. By the end, we feel we've “put our time in,” so to speak, and the payoff, or in this case, Shyamalan's signature twist, makes us glad we stuck with it. For the most part, this is an unusual and interesting thriller, but there are times when it's also a chilling and tense one, with some arguably gripping moments. This includes one of Casey's flashbacks that shows a really neat shot of a reflection in an eyeball, and another toward the end involving a coat hanger, the outcome of which I didn't expect. Mike Gioulakis' cinematography leverages the enclosed locations well and, through the use of low angles and slow tracking shots, really builds toward and heightens the intensity of the final act. Split may be inconsistent and questionable at times, but it's not a thriller we're likely to forget, and in this case, that's a good thing.