FILM REVIEW – SPLIT. With James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language. 117 minutes.
Eighteen years ago, writer/director and would-be actor M. Night Shyamalan made a movie called “The Sixth Sense.” It was an eerie mystery with a killer surprise twist that turned it into one of the biggest hits of the year. He’s been trying to repeat that ever since. While some of his later films have their partisans, particularly “Unbreakable,” he never really captured it again.
His latest attempt, SPLIT, has all the things that make slogging through his movies such a chore. There are dramatic loose ends and improbable happenings, there’s the inevitable surprise twist which has been foreshawdowed all along, there are characters who don’t act like any human being not in a Shyamalan movie, and there’s a wink or two at the audience as the filmmaker pays homage to himself. While not as bad as “Lady in the Water” (2006), where he cast himself as a misunderstood genius, it continues the egotism that suffuses his films.
In “Split,” three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are kidnapped by man (James McAvoy) who has that movie favorite, the multiple personality disorder. His psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who has a copy of “Sybil” on her bookshelf, believes him to be brilliant and possibly possessing special powers. He visits her as a fashion designer, but in the locked basement room where he keeps his captives, he appears as a little boy, a woman, and a man with an accent obsessed with cleanliness. We’re told he has 24 distinct personalities including one known as “The Beast.”
This would be a conventional thriller, except we get increasingly troubled flashbacks of one of the girls as a child. We know she’s a misfit who isn’t really friends with the other two, but she may be the one who best understands Kevin/Barry/Hedwig, and so on, and might figure out how they might escape. By the time we finally get to the end of it all, one must not only suspend one’s disbelief in order to accept the proceedings. One must strangle it until it is thoroughly dead, dead, dead. To cite but one thing without giving too much away, how has the man managed to hide out where he is without being discovered when, as we learn, he is in a place that is regularly patrolled?
Of course the calling card for the film is McAvoy playing multiple characters, sometimes in the same scene. That he makes them all distinctive is to his credit, but he is trapped in a script–credited to Shyamalan–that makes these personalities cartoonish. The other performances are adequate, but the only one who can really be accused of acting, besides McAvoy, is Taylor-Joy as Casey. As her story plays out you begin to wish the movie was about her, instead of placing her in this clichéd thriller.
Perhaps the most charitable way to look at “Split” is that is a cry for help by its director. “Stop me before I film again,” he seems to be saying. Let’s hope Hollywood–and the audiences that encourage Hollywood–takes heed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel, will be released in next month. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.