Split (2017, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
It takes only seconds for Casey and her two classmates to get abducted. They wake up in a bunker, being held captive by a strange man with apparent OCD about cleanliness. Later, they overhear conversations between this man and a woman. The door opens to reveal the same man as before but now posing as a woman. Casey quickly realizes they are dealing with a man that is experiencing dissociative personality disorder. The man is also seeing Dr. Karen Fletcher, a psychiatrist who is beginning to understand that the stability she believes she has instilled in her patient may be falling apart.
Split is not a great film. It is an entertaining movie. And I find it impossible to discuss the movie outside the context of Shyamalan’s body of work. Not too long ago I did a Revisit on Unbreakable and found myself remembering how much I loved the director’s early 2000s work. It wasn’t without significant flaws. The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are pretty flawless in my opinion, but starting with Signs the “twist” element of the work begins to wear thin. However, the aesthetic and technical aspects of this film, The Village, and even Lady in the Water is strong. The shots are interesting, music adds to the movie, and (sans Lady in the Water) they are cohesive narratives that make sense.
Then we entered the next period of Shyamalan’s work The Last Airbender/After Earth. These feel like the bid to become the Spielbergian blockbuster director, and I think most people agree they are disasters. Then he shifts again with The Visit and now Split, both produced by Blumhouse. One thought I had after watching Split last night was that if you showed me this film and Unbreakable, I would never think the same director made both movies. Unbreakable shows restraint and an intentional absence of clear exposition. Split is a film with too much exposition, and it feels like it is embarrassed about itself and needs to explain that it is “really super serious, you guys.”
Betty Buckley’s role of Dr. Fletcher mainly seems like an exposition delivery device. Rather than trusting the audience to figure out what is going on, the script has her spell out exactly what the man’s disorder is and even states how to bring back the original personality if there was a need to do so. As many reviews have pointed out, the entire picture feels like a higher budget exploitation film from the 1970s/80s. There’s nothing wrong with making that sort of pastiche/homage film, but something feels off throughout the entire experience.
Anya Taylor Joy plays Casey, and it is nowhere near as interesting a role as the one she had in The Witch. She is still an excellent actress given the material offered to her. And she is the only actor in the cast who gets to exhibit an iota of subtlety. She gets a lot of silent moments to show her reactions and thoughts. The final “twist” feels horribly crass and almost seems to say “Oh thank goodness for childhood abuse and trauma, it saved the day.” There is ambiguity about what Casey will choose to do in her final scene and to leave that open isn’t terrible though.
While Anya Taylor Joy plays things subtle, James McAvoy as the mysterious man turns it up to eleven and keeps it there the entire film. His performance is simultaneously impressive and embarrassing. He does show skill transitioning smoothly between personalities in the same scene, complete with facial expressions melting from one to the other. The problems are less with McAvoy and more with the script’s handling of mental illness which is incredibly exploitative and not clever in any way.
I am never opposed to a director changing their aesthetic and experimenting, however, what Shyamalan is doing in the last decade seems not to be moving towards a stronger mastery of his craft. His current work feels more amateurish than the films that initially garnered him acclaim. It’s hard to see what the future holds for Shyamalan, and a deep part of me hopes he can find some grounding because I believe he has a great talent for filmmaking.