Everything that works in Split is James McAvoy.
It’s Always Eerie in Philadelphia
In the spirit of split personalities, there are two ways to view writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. In one frame of mind, it’s easily his best movie since The Sixth Sense. In another, though, Split is merely the movie that sucks the least since The Sixth Sense.
The worst staples of Shyamalan’s collection of cinematic efforts are present.
For starters, there are ridiculously unrealistic reactions from lead characters. It’s not bad acting when teenage Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, Morgan) freezes up in the passenger seat of a car after a stranger enters the driver’s seat. Her two friends are in the back seat, fully fixated on social media. No. This isn’t bad acting. It’s contrived storytelling, the kind that allows for the father of one of the girls to be murdered behind the boot of the car, which is conveniently open to stash away tons of restaurant doggie bags and birthday presents – and to block the kids’ view of what’s going on outside.
And Shyamalan once again treats himself to a really bad cameo — another speaking part — placed in service to a story that offers up a series of mysterious activities with fantastic possibilities that are taken to absurd ends.
The real horror potential is sucked out of the story in favor of a sterile view of suspense; this movie begs for a Psycho moment or the creepy discomfort of Silence of the Lambs – keep waiting, it never happens. Instead, Shyamalan lazily piles on stock, off-the-rack stories from a sad world full of abusive relatives and absent parents; the one good man in the story is offed in the opening scenes.
Therein is Split’s biggest sin: it’s a thriller without thrills.
23/24 Cloverfield Lane
Before rattling off too much more about Split’s multiple downsides, a huge, heaping helping of kudos go to James McAvoy (Wanted) for his screen-grabbing portrayal of Kevin; it alone is almost enough to earn Split a mild recommendation. Almost.
Kevin’s got a Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder) and his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, Frantic), has identified 23 distinct personalities. Among the prominent ones on display here are a fashion designer, a cross-dresser and a 9-year-old boy.
The dominant personality is a twisted molester named Dennis. Actually, he’s a bit of a split personality within a split personality; he’s an uptight molester contending with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
But there are also murmurings of a 24th personality. Number 24 turns out to be a major plot point in the third act, but its significance isn’t properly developed; for quite a while, the references to this 24th identity are merely background chatter, but it turns out that development is supposed to be a focus and a concern of moviegoers.
And thus begins the dissection of what’s wrong with Split.
Perhaps the sleaziest part of Split is the creepy thought that maybe Shyamalan’s been going to the movies and shopping for ideas. This one feels a heckuva lot like 10 Cloverfield Lane and it also plays on the PG-13-sanitized “torture porn” craze. Unfortunately, the teased through-line of the action doesn’t equate to the same kind of “wowza” ending of 10 Cloverfield Lane. Instead, Shyamalan throws out a twist that seems like a vain attempt to create his very own, personal movie multiverse by tying the story to events in one of his earlier movies.
We Have to Talk About Kevin
In addition to the 24th personality, there are a couple other mysteries that don’t pan out all that well, either. Flashbacks to Casey’s childhood reveal a strong-willed girl who’s had her own troubles growing up, but they’re troubles buffered by a loving father who taught her how to handle a rifle. So why, then, would this self-reliant juvenile delinquent freeze up when Dennis enters the car? Ah. Yeah. It’s in the spirit of contrivance.
Anyway, the third mystery thread revolves around where exactly Kevin has created his lair. The revelation isn’t particularly shocking. It simply almost sort of makes sense. A less public place, though, would’ve allowed for more of the creep factor to sink in as the camera pans across the living quarters of Kevin’s multiple personas during the closing scenes. Those frames should’ve been chock full of creepy, sleazy sensibilities — even at a “safe” PG-13 level.
Lying around in all of this is a legitimately cool idea: We are what we believe we are.
But Dr. Fletcher takes this idea to a different place when she talks of cases wherein the subject has personalities with different physical attributes, to the point of having different cholesterol levels and different physical capabilities.
It’s where Shyamalan ultimately takes this notion that earns Split such a divided review.