Split full movie review - No Hannibal Lecter, but Not for the Squeamish
Fairly early in the filmmaking career of M. Night Shyamalan, the Philadelphia-based writer and director suffered a terrible professional misfortune?three consecutive films he wrote, produced, and directed became enormous critical and commercial successes.
The Sixth Sense in 1999, Unbreakable in 2000, and Signs in 2002?and to a lesser extent The Village in 2004?were mostly lauded by critics for their innovation and imagination, and were embraced an adopted by audiences, many of whom returned for repeat viewings. The Sixth Sense additionally spawned a catchphrase?"I see dead people"?still quoted as among the most familiar in motion picture history.
After those remarkable feats of box office legerdemain, critics began mentioning Shyamalan's name in the same exulted breath as Steven Spielberg?and worse, Alfred Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan often included an unexpected, surprise twist in the plot at the end of his pictures, and also usually either played a small role or made a quick cameo appearance in his pictures.
Unfortunately for Shyamalan, after reaching such a rarefied cinematic stratosphere there was precisely one way to go. And from Lady in the Water in 2006 through the almost unwatchable After Earth in 2013, and 2015's The Visit, the filmmaker has been mostly descending into a maelstrom of pedestrian filmmaking.
But Shyamalan is trying to reverse his recent misfortunes: In his new picture, Split, released Friday by Universal Pictures, three teenage girls are kidnapped together by a man who reveals himself to be a disturbed individual indeed. The girls' abductor transports the girls to an undisclosed location and tosses them into what appears to be a damp medieval dungeon with cots and a spotless and well-appointed full bathroom.
Quickly revealed is that the kidnapper suffers from dissociative identity disorder, multiple personalities. And while each of the man's twenty-three separate personalities seem vaguely aware of each other, only one or two appear to be in charge. Those couple of personalities are prepared to give profane birth to an entirely new manifestation, one which promises unspeakably bad news for the three involuntary guests.
Split itself swiftly develops multiple personalities in the form of separate plots: It turns out the kidnapper, played by Scottish actor James McAvoy, has been in the psychiatric care of a renowned and well-heeled psychiatrist played by Betty Buckley, almost unrecognizable from her days as the mom on television's Eight is Enough.
The good doc has apparently been earning a pretty penny from papers and lectures about her star patient's multiple maladies. And while the patient has of late appeared fairly benign, the psychiatrist?unknowing of the kidnapping?senses something unsettling enough to begin sniffing around to learn what's cooking.
Meanwhile, back in the dungeon, the three kidnapped girls continue to plot, mostly unsuccessfully, to escape their confinement. And eventually it's learned that one of the three girls?the quiet, unpopular high school outcast Casey?has been raised in the footsteps of her loving outdoors-man father, and knows a thing or two about hunting, stalking, and killing prey.
Mostly, Split is McAvoy's show, a real tour de force for the actor. It's sometimes forgotten that prior to the actor's recent steady gig as the young Professor Charles Xavier in the popular Marvel Comics X-Men series of pictures?three appearances and counting?as well as in plainly execrable garbage like 2015's Victor Frankenstein, McAvoy was once considered to be a talent of some promise, with performances in such acclaimed pictures as 2006's The Last King of Scotland in 2006 and Atonement in 2007.
Possibly the challenge of playing and individual with twenty-three distinct and different personalities was McAvoy's means of groping his way back to his original promise. Unfortunately, the actor seems to perform each individual manifestation with a knowing little smirk, an implied wink at the audience, which keeps the viewer constantly aware that this is a performance, a stunt, and is not believable or credible so much as it is mildly impressive as an acting school exercise.
The flip side of McAvoy's multiple characters is Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the kidnapped girl whose survivalist background?and whose own troubled childhood?might provide a key to escaping her confinement. Recently appearing in 2015's controversial and disturbing The Witch, Taylor-Joy contributes a performance which is competent but not particularly evocative?the audience is anxious for the character's situation more than for the character herself. Taylor-Joy with her wide-eyed, emotionless stare seems to be in a hypnotic trance most of the way through the picture's 117 minutes.
There's nothing really wrong with Split?the picture delivers enough suspense, chills, jumps, starts and surprises to justify the cost of admission, although it's also sometimes tough to comprehend how the picture escaped the MPAA's clutches with a PG-13 rating when the menace and the subject matter alone should've earned at least an R. One genuinely unsettling early scene in which the kidnapper terrorizes his hostages even strays briefly into NC-17 territory.
But thrills aside, the biggest casualty of Split is M. Night Shyamalan's reputation as an innovative filmmaker. Three plots running simultaneously is at least one plot too many. Subtract the survivalist plot and Split becomes a Classics Illustrated version of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie Split references endlessly anyway. Take away the psychiatrist's sleuthing and Split becomes last year's Don't Breathe, Ten Cloverfield Lane, or any of a number of the dozen or so other ubiquitous horror opuses which seem to open almost weekly Mostly, Split references Shyamalan's earlier successes?almost literally, thanks to a significant cameo and line of dialogue at the very end of the picture.
But Thomas Wolfe could've told Shyamalan?you can't go home again. Instead, Split suffers from the very mediocrity the director seems to want to emulate from lesser films but exceed in quality and surpass in effectiveness, a feat Hitchcock accomplished in 1960 with Psycho. Possibly Split would've been more successful in its ambition had it been guided by the steady hand of a Steven Spielberg?
?or an Alfred Hitchcock.