Split Is an Uneven Blend of Great Performance and Insulting Script
Watchable for James McAvoy, memorable for a mere thirty seconds.
If you’re hoping for a twist ending to the story in M. Night Shymalan’s new film, Split, you should go ahead and abandon that desire right now. This is as straightforward a thriller as the writer/director has delivered in years, and that works both to its advantage and detriment. Moot point though as it’s troubled for a big reason wholly unrelated to the plot.
Kevin (James McAvoy) has a dissociative psychological disorder resulting from a childhood trauma that has split him into multiple personalities. He has 23 at last count, and one or more of them have just committed a heinous crime. He’s abducted three teenage girls, locked them in a subterranean room, and told them to await “the Beast.” The girls have differing opinions as to how they should respond to the threat. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) want to fight – a sensible option seeing as a single, healthy teenage girl could probably take down McAvoy, let alone three – but loner oddball Casey (Ana Taylor-Joy) convinces them to take a different tact.
They decide to watch, wait, and risk being victimized instead.
What frustrates about the film and about its two big issues below is that McAvoy is absolutely terrific and impressively committed with a performance that entertains and excites in equal measure. He crafts unique personas here through mannerism and expression, and in one of the personalities delivers some genuine laughs and levity amid the supposed terror.
Shyamalan isn’t all that interested in hiding the various moving parts of his tale here, but unlike The Sixth Sense for example where subtle clues are all there in hindsight for its reveal, the pieces here form a pretty straight line to its conclusion. Some of Kevin’s personalities are trying to get help from a psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), whose specialty is the theory that differing personalities can affect biological change on their body depending on their conviction – one personality can have high cholesterol while the others don’t, a blind person could have a personality with the ability to see, etc. Add that to Kevin’s persistent promises that “the Beast” is coming and the movie has laid all of its cards on the table.
The problem – the first problem anyway – is that this setup and execution leaves little room for surprises or thrills. Some minor beats offer feigned suspense, but anyone who’s seen more than a few thrillers will know where its going well before it gets there as both big and small story turns feel expected. We’re kept interested through the performances (McAvoy gives a star turn, but Taylor-Joy and the others do fine work as well) rather than the script, and while that means it’s never a dull film it’s also never a very interesting one either.
The bigger issue though, the one that drags the film down from passable entertainment to highly disappointing misfire, is its oddly misguided view on women. Perhaps it’s an issue of an economy of characters, but every female character here is, for lack of a better term, worthless under pressure. They accomplish nothing, and with only a single exception they exist only as unavoidable victims. (The exception is an aggressor instead.) This is the kind of thing you expect from less enlightened genre fare from decades past, and while Shyamalan’s films generally prefer their heroes to be male it’s never been so egregious and falsely presented as it is here.
There’s more to his take on victimology than a spoiler-free review can touch upon, but the topic is clearly a focus here. Kevin and Casey are both characters shaped by past trauma, but while one was torn into powerful pieces the other became a useless (and possibly dangerous) victim. When you see the film keep an eye out for a moment of strength (physical or mental) from a female character that succeeds or isn’t tainted by idiocy. You won’t find one.
Split is worth a watch almost exclusively for McAvoy’s performance, but – and this doesn’t mean I lied up at the top – it’s destined to be more of a memorable conversation piece for its final thirty seconds. It’s not a plot twist really, but it’s the best half minute Shyamalan’s delivered in over fifteen years. I wish you luck in dodging spoilers until the film opens in January.