On January 20th many will be watching a dangerous and unbalanced man, and witness the terror of the women he has power over.
But enough about Donald Trump’s inauguration, let’s talk about Split.
After last year’s The Visit it seemed that M. Night Shyamalan was on the road to redemption for many. However the film’s attitude of “old people are funny and creepy because they’re old” didn’t sit well with many, myself included. Even so, he was considered to be on an upward trajectory again at long last. When the first trailer for Split came out it seemed that we were in for something similar to The Visit but trading old people for Dissociative Identity Disorder. However the main cast were very promising with James McAvoy, one of the best British actors working at the moment, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who became a real talent to watch after last year’s The Witch. Maybe two really good actors could be enough to smooth out the wrinkles of Shyamalan’s lesser qualities.
Unfortunately, not this time.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is one of three girls who have been kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), a young man with 23 distinct personalities; which includes the sinister and meticulous Dennis, overbearing matriarch Miss Patricia, and 9 year old mischievous Hedwig. The girls are told that they have been brought to some kind of underground bunker to help prepare for the emerging of the 24th personality known as The Beast.
This is being billed as a “psychological thriller” but it really isn’t, simply because it’s nowhere near that complex. There aren’t really any surprises, and it isn’t scary or tense. The girls have been brought to this isolated and trapped location, but we the audience don’t stay with them in that place, we are constantly leaving it with scenes of Betty Buckley’s psychiatrist character or the flashbacks to Casey’s past that, in true Shyamalan fashion, contains things that will become prominently relevant to her present predicament (see also: Signs) and so whilst we may be invested in the girls and their imprisonment, it doesn’t feel as all-encompassing as it should. A few very gendered moments of discomfort aside, nothing really succeeds in making you uncomfortable. The moments that are shooting for that creepy/funny thing that The Visit relied on fall flat, despite the fact that McAvoy is clearly giving it his all. He and Taylor-Joy work well together here, particularly with his performance being very outlandish and hers being so insular. It’s a good dynamic and I just wish they were working with stronger material, particularly Taylor-Joy, whose Casey has shades of interesting elements but is limited by very weak back story writing.
Then there’s the elephant in the room; the mental health issues. The issue isn’t necessarily having a villain who has a mental health problem, representation means showing all shades, but when the prevailing message from mainstream media is that people with mental health problems are violent and dangerous, that in turn builds on social stigma and is harmful. This film adds to that in a way that feels almost anachronistic, like it’s a throwback without that trashy knowing vibe. There’s also this bizarre element of discussing people with D.I.D as being almost an extra evolution, thereby establishing them as something not quite human, which just comes off as really weird. It ultimately is something that feels mishandled.
There is the good point that visually the film is really slick and well crafted, owing entirely to the involvement of Mike Gioukakis, whose work as a cinematographer will be familiar to anyone who saw 2014’s indie horror hit It Follows. However like many of the good parts shining through in the film, you can’t help but think that you can see them done better elsewhere. You want thriller of a young woman in an enclosed location? 10 Cloverfield Lane. You want to see James McAvoy unhinged? Filth. And if you want to see quality Shyamalan, go back to The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
As for what Split is if it isn’t a psychological thriller, that is harder to define without spoiling the film. All I can say is that it builds to a climax that is unsatisfying, but is purposefully so, and then leaves it to an extra credits scene to make you realise the context Shyamalan has in mind. This may be fine to some depending on how things pan out with future films for Shyamalan, but as a singular experience it leaves you without real closure and something of a bad aftertaste.