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Review: Split (2017)

Split (2017)

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Premise: Three teenage girls are kidnapped by a man with twenty-three personalities. Their captor’s different personas battle for control over his mind and a deadlier and more aggressive personality known as “The Beast” threatens to emerge. 

What Works: Split is at its best as a showcase of James McAvoy’s performance as the split personality. McAvoy is all in and his performance in Split is an impressive display of versatility. Some of his personalities are male and others are female and some are affable and others are cold. The way McAvoy shifts from one personality to another, sometimes within the same scene and occasionally within the same shot, is distressing and convincing. Most importantly, McAvoy’s performance sells the illusion and makes it credible within the context of the movie. Split could easily become unintentionally hilarious and McAvoy deserves a lot of credit for the film working as well as it does. Split was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The filmmaker has had an irregular career but he’s at his best while telling intimate horror stories like The Sixth Sense and The Visit. Shyamalan is in familiar territory in Split and the film demonstrates the director’s talent for creating creepy imagery and staging the action and moving the camera in ways that maximize the suspense. There are a few frightening sequences in this film and the movie deserves credit for making an outlandish premise work. The plot does a few interesting things with its structure. The film periodically flashes backward to the childhood of the captive played by Anya Taylor-Joy. The flashback structure gives the character some depth and adds meaning to the climax; this is a smart way of building a character arc into the story when the events taking place in the present don’t allow for one. The flashback also presents some difficult subject matter in a way that’s tactful without diminishing the impact.

What Doesn’t: The concept of Split is ludicrous. This is a movie based on a popular but largely discredited idea of dissociative identity disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder) and then suggests that this condition could unlock supernatural abilities. That the film portrays a mental patient as a threat is problematic. In reality, the mentally ill are much more likely to be the target of violence than the other way around. There’s an argument to be made that this film exploits the stigma around mental illness for cheap thrills. However, since the filmmakers use an illness that probably doesn’t exist, that earns them some latitude and Split’s portrayal of madness fits within a broader tradition in horror fiction like Edgar Huntley, “The Tell Tale Heart,” and Halloween. As with most fantastic stories, the film’s success depends on the viewers’ willingness to suspend their disbelief and so it’s up to viewers to decide whether or not they are going to go along with the conceit. Aside from the credibility issues, Split struggles with its characters. It is unclear who the protagonist of this movie is supposed to be. It may be McAvoy’s character but the story doesn’t unfold from his point of view and like most horror villains he remains an elusive figure. None of the three captive woman are characterized very well. They are not interesting and we don’t get to know them in a meaningful way. Even Anya Taylor-Joy’s role, who is the subject of the flashbacks, doesn’t get much in the way of characterization. The regard for the young women of Split is often leery and exploitative. They don’t fight back even when obvious opportunities present themselves and two of the three captives are reduced to their underwear. In this respect, Split is actually more regressive than a lot of the slasher films that were vilified three decades ago.

Bottom Line: Split works as a horror picture and it is one of M. Night Shyamalan’s better films. The movie has more to recommend it than not although this seems to be a placeholder title, introducing characters for the purpose of making more movies.

Episode: #634 (February 12, 2017)