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Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

Universal Pictures

1h and 57 mins

PG-13 (MPAA)

After the embarrassing one-two-three-four punch of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan is experiencing a bit of a career renaissance with 2015's The Visit, and now, Split. This review will be light on spoilers. I won't be telling you much that you can't glean from the trailers.

My friend Laura (an actual film critic, check out her stuff here), invited me to this early screening, and I was looking forward to this film, given that I mostly really enjoyed The Visit, and because the trailers for Split, looked quite good.

Grandma wants to answer a question.
Grandma wants to answer a question.

Synopsis

Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy - whom you might remember as Thomasin in last year's The Witch) and her friends Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are abducted by James McAvoy's character, and are kept locked in what seems to be a dingy basement. Very quickly they realize that their abductor suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and they spend the film trying to get out alive.

So how is the movie itself? Well, it's far superior to those garbage movies that I mentioned above, but it is a mixed bag. You might say that I'm split (... I'm so sorry).

McAvoy did not appreciate that pun.
McAvoy did not appreciate that pun.

Acting

Outside of the characters that I mentioned in the synopsis, there's really only one other major character, McAvoy's (there is a reason I'm not using his character's name here) therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She does a pretty solid job, but even with a decent amount of screen time for a tertiary character, isn't given much to do. Similarly, Sula and Richardson are adequate. They certainly didn't take me out of the movie, but their performances aren't particularly memorable.

Anya Taylor-Joy thoroughly impressed me with The Witch, and she doesn't disappoint here. Her character (a disaffected, emo teen - a tired trope, though she is given reason for it, more on that later) is rather thin, but she makes the most of it, delivering a performance worthy of the pairing with McAvoy. I haven't seen Morgan. My understanding is that it wasn't very good, but that she was excellent. I have no doubt that Taylor-Joy has the ability to create quite a career for herself.

"I've been contracted to make a post-Happening Shyamalan film, right?"
"I've been contracted to make a post-Happening Shyamalan film, right?"

All of that said, this is very much McAvoy's movie. We learn that his character has a total of 24 personalities. Unfortunately we only meet six or seven of them. I feel like this was a mistake. While it may have been overkill to see them all, I felt almost cheated that we only see a handful. If you're going to set it up, pay it off. If you don't want to pay it off, just change the number to something smaller. Without paying it off, 24 personalities seems like a rather arbitrary way of suggesting that this guy is really messed up.

But. McAvoy absolutely kills it in this film. I've always liked him as an actor, but here he absolutely shows off all of the weapons in his acting arsenal. He effortlessly slips between these personalities - a middle aged woman, a young boy, a man with obsessive-compulsive disorder - and occasionally does so in the same shot. He identifies and separates these personalities so seamlessly that when he switches between them, we can tell which personality he's taken on from his body language alone.

Spoiler alert: She has the Jewel of the Ocean.
Spoiler alert: She has the Jewel of the Ocean.

There are nods to other psychotic characters from past films, but I do feel like at certain points, he was channeling Ralph Fiennes' performance in Red Dragon (by no means a great film, but Fiennes was incredible).

"Do you see?"
"Do you see?"

Furthermore, McAvoy brings a physicality to his character(s?) that is truly impressive. Honestly, I could go on for another fifteen thousand words about how good he was, but I shan't waste your time gushing like a schoolboy. I will say this: I would be shocked if he doesn't receive awards nominations for this movie. If nothing else, it is clear that McAvoy had the time of his life inhabiting these roles.

Script, Plot and Scares

First off, I'll say that there is some pretty solid humour in this film, most of it coming down to McAvoy's insanely nuanced performance. A woman proudly mentioning that she used paprika in a recipe, or a little boy dancing in his room (which is also rather unsettling). Split provided some genuinely funny laughs.

"Put the paprika in the basket!"
"Put the paprika in the basket!"

The dialogue, while not terrible, is problematic at times. It can be rather hokey, and I had a couple of moments where I was shaking my head, wishing that Shyamalan had taken just one more pass at the script.

Casey, our heroine, is also given a backstory that is shown in flashbacks. While it sets up her somewhat emo personality, and also shows us the genesis of where she found the wherewithal to deal with her current predicament, it feels incredibly lazy, and egregiously tacked on. Shyamalan tends to do this in his films (we see it with the younger, rapping, germaphobe brother in The Visit), but it comes across as an almost film school conceit, and it really didn't need to be there. Shyamalan could have cut all of the flashbacks, shortened the film by maybe five or 10 minutes, and I would have enjoyed it more.

There is something that happens in the end, however, that almost ruined the movie for me. It's so forced, so stupid (you'll know it when you see it - and hey, you might like it, but I hated it), and so out-of-nowhere that it actually made me a little angry.

Split isn't as scary as I was hoping it would be. It was unsettling at times, but it never reached the scare factor of, say, the grandmother popping up and growling at the camera that the kids had hidden in The Visit (yeah, that gave me goosebumps). Of course, the scares that are there are all courtesy of McAvoy, and some of them are truly effective. Having said that, I think Split is the better overall film.

Pacing

The pacing in Split actually reminded me of Rogue One (read my review here). The first two acts are very slow, perhaps deliberately, but they do drag more than they needed to. The final act does flow rather quickly and it is quite exciting.

"Don't choke on your aspirations, Shyamalan".
"Don't choke on your aspirations, Shyamalan".

Verdict

I didn't love Split as much as I'd hoped to, but, for the most part, I did enjoy it. I hope Shyamalan keeps trending in this direction because, after years of ridicule (much of it deserved), he is proving that he is still an able filmmaker, with some very cool ideas.

6.5/10

Have you seen Split? What did you think? Who is your favourite onscreen psychopath? Whatever your thoughts, hit up the comments section below, and let's discuss! As always, thank you very much for reading!

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