Split (2016) / Thriller-Horror
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke
Cameo: M. Night Shyamalan, Bruce Willis
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Review published January 24, 2017
M. Night Shyamalan (The Visit, After Earth) returns to his regular mode with Split, a twisty thriller with mild horror elements, which some will view as a return to form of sorts. Certainly, there are moments within this film that will remind you of some of Shyamalan's early work, as he does recycle through a few themes he's explored before. One could knock the guy for not progressing forward, but I think his fans will be happy to see him rely more on his strengths as a director, as well as a storyteller, settling in to just continue to work and hone those skills that are main assets. Hitchcock made a respectable career sticking mostly to the suspense genre, so why not Shyamalan, who many critics and fans originally compared to the Master of Suspense in his first few films.?
James McAvoy (X-Men: Apocalypse, Victor Frankenstein) plays a strange man who suffers from 'dissociative identity disorder', i.e., he has split personalities -- 23 known personalities in fact. He suggests to his sympathetically curious psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Buckley, The Happening), that there could be a 24th, one that could prove the end of humanity, or the evolution if it anyway, should it come to the surface. However, a few of his personalities are still difficult to control, such as OCD-afflicted Dennis, who takes it upon himself to kidnap three teenage girls in Philadelphia and drag them to a massive basement facility under lock and key, informing them that they are essentially lambs to the slaughter to feed the 'beast' that will emerge. The girls must find a way out of the facility before that happens, but their captor is as erratic as can be, never knowing what they're going to run into when they try to make their escape.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that Shyamalan is returning to the quality of his early works, even though this one fares better than most of his output of late. However, I will definitely say that his best choice for Split is in his choice of lead actors, as the film could have easily fallen into laughability were it not for the very strong work from James McAvoy, who seems to utterly relish chewing the scenery with a character who shifts in and out of various distinct personalities, and Goth misfit kidnapee Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan, The Witch), who is mesmerizing yet again in a chiller where the gets to tread the line between shuddering innocence and determined strength. Their motivations for doing what they do may seem silly and often nonsensical from a plot standpoint, but helps us suspend some of that disbelief for the sake of what might be a cracking good yarn.
At its best moments, Split is indeed creepy and suspenseful, as Shyamalan does manage to create some good tension in a few key scenes, enough to get viewers' adrenaline pumping in anticipation of what might happen should malevolence prevail. At its worst, it contains occasionally prolonged, redundant lulls (most of the flashbacks to Casey's childhood hunting trip are not necessary), or they dip into goofy and distracting camp (the scene in which Shyamalan makes his trademark cameo appearance being the least convincing attempt to drum up silly laughs). There's also a fairly cavalier (and somewhat tasteless) attitude toward making child abuse a plot motivation device that does settle uneasily with me in a film that doesn't have very many noble intentions other than to be a piece of entertainment. Some might also find its depiction of those with mental illness equally troubling as used as a pat explanation for abject menace in yet another gimmicky thriller.
Nevertheless, thanks to the two lead performances, as well as Shyamalan's penchant for psychologically off-kilter stories, Split manages to stay engaging enough to succeed in evoking creepy thrills and choice moments of black humor. At the end of the film, Shyamalan gives a nod to his fans, who have longed for him to return to making the kinds of movies he had been making when he started. It isn't a full return, but given the schizophrenic output from Shyamalan in recent years, it's good to see him starting to feel more like his old self again. As for my grade, it is a 'split' decision, but one that leans toward the side of a recommendation, especially for those who've stuck with Shyamalan through his many ups and downs.
©2017 Vince Leo