Split (2016) (117 min)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Haley Lu Richardson.
Follows Unbreakable (2000)
Editor’s note: If you have not yet watched Split, I suggest you do so before reading this review. Spoilers ahead! You have been warned…
I am a total fan of M. Night Shyalaman’s movie making skills, less so his screenwriting talents and penchant for twist endings. Split was supposed to be his triumphant return to glory after several disappointing efforts, mainly on the strong performance of James McAvoy, an abused child who has grown up with a man sized dissociative disorder. We don’t see all twenty-three of the inhabitants inside his skull, but we are introduced to Kevin, the true personality, Dennis the deviant, Patricia the clipped British lady in league with Dennis, Barry who is a caricature of every gay fashion designer that ever lived, and Hedwig, a nine year old boy. For some reason his shrink, well played by Betty Buckley doesn’t see the inherent danger in the situation, even though all the signs are present for a disaster.
You see, after Kevin’s dad died, possibly in a train wreck, his mother abused him, and fractured his poor old personality for goodski. Then to add icing on top of his loony cake, he tells his shrink two girls let him touch their breasts, which apparently sent all twenty-three of them off the rails on a crazy train. One has to wonder whether Dennis is a reliable narrator in light of future events.
Dennis then kidnaps three teenage girls for some obscure reason. After securing them in his underground dungeon, he attempts to molest them and finally has them strip down to their underwear. One of the girls, urinates to keep him from raping her. Charming. Hedwig seems to be the only sympathetic personality and tells the girls they are to be sacrificed to the “Beast”, a twenty-fourth personality that has yet to manifest itself. Sounds like total bullshit to me. Where’s he hiding, in Malibu? By the way, besides having a rather odd name, ol’ Heddy acts more like a six-year old.
After hearing this, the girls try to make a run for it, but are captured and imprisoned individually, adding to their sense of despair. We find out through a flashback that one of the young ladies, Casey, was sexually assaulted as a young girl by her uncle, who then became her guardian when her dad passed away.
All during this heated activity there is not a hint that the police or FBI is looking for the girls and Dennis’ psychiatrist seems blissfully unaware that there might be a connection between her patient and the crime. After all, these are three upper middle class underage girls snatched in broad daylight outside of a mall. What can be more inconspicuous than that?
A few words about McAvoy’s much praised performance. I was rather underwhelmed by it. The different personalities come dangerously close to parody at times. It is to his and Shyamalan’s credit that the atmosphere and cinematography make the various persona credible. I had to rewind a few times to make sure it was Dennis and not Kevin, or was it Kevin…well you get the idea. Any film about dissociative disorder loses its excitement if the personalities are too subtly expressed. Besides the infantile Hedwig, and the foppish Barry, the only tangible difference between the other characters is that Patricia wears a dress. Despite that, McAvoy gets an “A” for effort, if not execution.
The film gains energy as it approaches the climax. The shrink finally decides something’s fishy, but instead of going to the cops, she goes to Kevin’s underground dungeon alone and meets a predictable fate. Then the Beast shows up, and in what has to be one of Shyamalan’s worst twists, the mood of the film shifts from a tepid psychological thriller to a tepid monster/science fiction movie, basically negating the previous one hour and ten minutes of running time. Two of the girls suffer a grisly death, adding to the sick, misogynistic atmosphere.
The final ugly slap in the face of girls and women everywhere happens when the Beast views Casey’s body. Instead of killing her, he observes the scars from her self-mutilation, a product of her sexual abuse. The Beast declares her to be “pure”, and pontificates that only troubled souls are exceptional. When she is rescued, so to speak, she is delivered into the arms of her perverted uncle, as bleak and heartless a scene ever put to film. So, I guess Shyamalan is saying women need to be abused and raped before they become worthy. The movie ends with all of Kevin’s loon squad discussing plans to “change the world” by providing a sequel.
Now, being a horror and exploitation fan, I’m quite used to watching women being degraded in all sorts of ways and often accompanied by downbeat endings. Watching an indie [exploitation] film, or even trash like August Underground doesn’t faze me. However, Split is a grindhouse film in disguise, particularly repulsive for the cavalier way it blames women for the degeneracy of McAvoy’s character. By parading the nubile girls around in their underwear Shyalaman is painting them as sluts, and fair game for whatever happens to them.
Even the psychiatrist is portrayed as an ignorant selfish bitch, more interested in her own theories than in Kevin, as a human being. The film’s biggest mistake is that the audience sees the action through Kevin’s perspective and identifies more with him than the girls. To make matters worse, Shyalaman generates nothing but sympathy for the killer, putting the blame for his condition squarely on the shoulders of the female species. Generally, the barrier between villain and victim is well constructed in serial killer films such as in Psycho, the Friday the 13th franchise and similar films. In Split, the audience is invited to share in the Beast’s triumph.
On the other hand, every male in the film is perverse and twisted, yet they triumph in the end. Please don’t hand me any nonsense that this is a set-up for the next film, Glass, therefore Shyalaman needed to create another supervillain to battle Bruce Willis, the superhero from Unbreakable (2000). This is not Thor, Batman or Transformers.
What makes Split so frustrating is that it could have been Shyalaman’s best film. Visually the film is perfect and the sound strikes the right balance between serene and scary, much like a Hitchcock film. The tension is palpable in the psychiatrist’s scenes, and the gripping terror of the girls is captured perfectly as their predicament grows worse. The dialogue, however, is stilted, another aspect of filmmaking Shyalaman hasn’t quite mastered.
Unfortunately, you can’t get away with a mean-spirited, ugly streak of misogyny in a major studio release. Unless you’re Tom Ford with Nocturnal Animals. But that’s for another review.