Roses are red,
There was this party that’s lit,
But instead I saw Split,
And it was a bit shit.
Happy belated Valentine’s Day!
DIRECTOR: M. Night Shyamalan
PRODUCERS: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock
WRITER: M. Night Shyamalan
INITIAL RELEASE: September 26, 2016
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
STARRING: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
SPOLIER WARNING- MAJOR PLOT DEETS REVEALED- YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
So, Split is terrible.
If you find that to be a bold statement, dear reader, then you’re likely not familiar with Shyamalan’s often colourfully bad body of work. While he experienced some early success, Shyamalan’s career quickly snowballed into a steep decline, going from one flop to the next, culminating in The Happening, one of the best comedies ever made that never wanted to be a comedy. After that, Shyamalan found himself relegated to rather unflattering jobs, blatant vanity vehicles like After Earth where his name was treated as box office poison. While The Visit was generally regarded as a possible “righting of the ship” for ol’ Shyami-Lams, I imagine no one was quite sure if he could keep his momentum going. Split will certainly do that for The Man Called Night, but perhaps not as intended.
Now, in defense of Split (and most of Shyamalan’s body of work), it is uniquely terrible, if nothing else. Such is a hallmark of Shyamalan as much as his infamous plot-twists: as the deadly writer/director combo, Shyamalan always ends up bringing his rather bizarre and often-times baffling understanding of humanity to bear on-screen, and Split is no different in that regard. The central premise of a man housing 23 separate personalities in his shattered psyche is a genuinely intriguing concept to build a film around, and in slightly more sensitive and nuanced hands, could have resulted in a genuinely moving exploration of mental illness. But it Shyamalan’s hands, it’s a concept that becomes a cudgel with which to beat us over the head with a ridiculous, schlocky, B-grade horror plot, which ends up being more than a little exploitative of what is actually a fairly serious (not to mention already highly controversial) condition.
Now, to be fair to Split, it has its bright spots, almost all of which involve James McAvoy, who portrays the aforementioned man with 23 personalities Kevin. McAvoy’s performance is very strong given the material he had to work with, and its clear watching him perform on-screen that he’s giving this uniquely challenging role everything he’s got. His performances range from the creepy and unsettling, to humorous, to tragic, and back again, shifting as seamlessly as Kevin shifts personalities. That’s not to sell the rest of the cast short, all of whom turn out equally admirable performances, given the material (again, I’ll get to that), that is a feat worthy of praise.
I think, if nothing else, the strength of performances in Split demonstrates that M. Night Shyamalan, for much as he’s become the butt of many a joke, is actually a solid director. Technically, Split has a lot going for it: scenes are well-structured and paced, and Shyamalan shows a clear talent for striking visuals and imagery, with his heavy-leaning on intimate close-ups producing some haunting and unsettling moments. Shyamalan clearly gets the genres in which he’s working, and it results in scenes and sequences that, had I been remotely invested in any of the characters, would having worked incredibly well. So yeah, as a director, I think Shymalan’s got stuff going for him.
No, where Shyamalan falls down with Split and with so many of his other films is the writing: the gloriously bad writing. Shyamalan can direct a script, but he sure as hell can’t write one that’s even remotely convincing. From the very first scene filled with awkward, stilted dialogue devoid of naturalism and subtly, I quietly prepared myself for more of the same for the rest of the film’s close to 2 hour running time. I don’t think there was a single character in Split that felt remotely convincing or believable in any way. Even McAvoy’s personalities were frustrating in their own way, most of them boiling down to gaudy stereotypes, with only McAvoy’s performance making them feel slightly better for it. The only character that felt remotely convincing was Dr. Fletcher (Buckley), whose concern for Kevin feels genuine and was, at times, at least a little moving, again thanks largely to Buckley’s strong performance, although even the good-will Dr. Fletcher generates ends up getting pissed away by the film’s end.
Of course, there are more fatal flaws with the script that go beyond unconvincing characters and crappy dialogue. Split, for all its absurdity, deals with some heavy stuff thematically: mental illness, abuse, and our broader attitude towards both. Split’s touchy and sensitive subject matter could have resulted in something really amazing with a smart, nuanced writer at the helm. Unfortunately, we got Old Mate Night instead, and smart and nuanced as a writer he ain’t. His portrayal of mental illness, specifically dissociative identity disorder, seems to warble uncomfortably between attempts at nuance to depressingly dehumansing and ill conceived.
That’s to say nothing, of course, of Split’s perspective on abuse and abuse survivors, which also comes across highly questionable. It would seem on a surface-level that Shyamalan was trying to make a film that was a positive portrait of these issues. Combing this with the fact that Split has a predominantly female cast who is menaced by a (quite literally) predatory male antagonist, I would almost say ol’ Shyamalamadindong was trying to tell a feminist story, but he misses that mark fairly impressively. It’s a bit hard to buy much of a feminist message from something like Split when half of its female cast spends the bulk of the film half-naked for fairly trivial reasons that don’t serve much of any meaningful story purpose, and that one of their first acts of defiance against their captor is to piss themselves. Really, Split feels like its trying to empower its characters as abuse survivors, but Shyamalan’s concept of empowerment really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in practice: his central female characters never really stop feeling like victims, and even their biggest moments of triumph come less from standing up to their captor and more just passively enduring their abuse or being shown mercy. Mix all this in with Split’s often-campy tone and more ridiculous laugh-out-loud moments, and you have a solid formula for a thematic train wreck that quickly shifts from sensitive to faintly exploitative…and not in a good way.
Oh yeah, and the big M. Night twist? Split’s apparently in the same universe as Unbreakable…ya-hoo.
But allow me to throw out a plot-twist of my own in here and say that, in spite of its many, many flaws, Split was weirdly entertaining. Like I said up top, Shymalan’s a uniquely bad filmmaker at his worst, and there’s few movies I’ve seen recently that can match Split’s bizarre union of slick technical understanding of genre and scene construction, B-grade exploitation horror schlock nonsense sensibilities, and poorly handled yet ambitious concepts and ideas.
With Split smashing at the box office, it actually does seem like Shyamalan might be back on the rise. Whether you think that’s actually good thing or not, well…I’ll defer to all of you on that. And as far as whether Split’s worth a watch or not…well, it’s hard to say. If you’re a schlock movie connoisseur, then Split will likely hold some delights for you, but if that’s not your jam, you can probably give a pass to Shyamalan’s latest…err, thing.