Movie Review: Split

The new film by M. Night Shyamalan tries too hard to be clever, again

Split (Rozpolcený)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
With James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula

M. Night Shyamalan has made his name by having tricky plot twists near the end of his films. He has done this so often that the surprise is no surprise. His latest film, Split, deals with a man who has 23 distinct personalities.

This concept creates a great acting opportunity for James McAvoy, who is seen doing at least eight of the 23 different characters. Some of them, such as a wannabe fashion designer, rely a bit on cliches and stereotypes, but that could be how the person behind the split personalities sees these different characters, or versions of him/herself.

But right off, Split gets onto unsteady ground. The main character, or one his personalities, kidnaps three young women and takes them to one of those places you only see is tawdry torture porn films. Some urban industrial basement that nobody seems to notice is being lived in by a maniac. And everything works. The electricity and gas were never turned off when it was abandoned.

Kevin Wendell Crumb (played by James McAvoy) is the person behind all the personalities. One minute he is a neatness freak, the next a strict woman, and then a little mischievous boy, and so on.

The role is quite difficult, but in the end it comes off as a master-class acting exercise rather than a coherent character with mental illness.

Kevin originally planned just to kidnap two teenage women from a party, but a third was dragged along by accident. The accidental victim, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is by far the more formidable of the three. The other two, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) put up a less successful resistance to the situation, and are thinly written stereotypes of women in distress.

Putting young women in danger is pretty much of a slam dunk idea for horror films. Some terrified teens trapped in a spooky setting can hardly be considered groundbreaking. But sometimes there is some new twist on it. 10 Cloverfield Lane, which came out in 2016, created tension from the idea that world outside may have been destroyed, while the world in the shelter is also unsafe. John Goodman as the unstable survivalist in 10 Cloverfield Lane was also much more terrifying than James McAvoy as the 23-fold maniac of Split.

There are also huge plot holes in Split. Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a psychiatrist familiar with Kevin Wendell Crumb, has seen the TV news reports of the abducted teens and knows her patient has issues that make him a suspect. Yet she does nothing — because one phone call from her would have ended the film in the first 10 minutes. There are more places further into the film where some simple action would have stopped the film dead in its tracks.

A side plot is more than a bit squirm inducing. Flashbacks show Casey as an even younger girl on a hunting trip with her father and her creepy uncle. Possibly this was included to counter the potential criticism that the film portrays the stereotype that abuse victims all grow up to be maniacal killers. Young Casey faced abuse and is seen as the stronger of the three kidnap victims, therefore the film is not insulting to abuse survivors. It's a nice try, but a bit too obvious a ploy.

Most people in real life know there is little evidence that multiple personality disorder (MPD), now called dissociative identity disorder (DID), exists in the typical way it is depicted in popular culture — a chorus of different people living in one brain and coming out one at a time. The film tries to address this too, with Dr. Fletcher arguing over a video link to a professional conference that DID really does exist, and by extension that the film is not just some warmed-over BS about a made-up disease.

The film up until about three-quarters of the way through is a fairly predictable kidnapping potboiler about some girls and a maniac, with some moderately good acting and above-average production values.

Then M. Night Shyamalan has to trot out his trademark surprise plot twist. This pushes the so-far mediocre horror film into the bottomless abyss of movies that tried to hard to be clever.

All of his efforts to build up a sense of realism are destroyed under the weight of the director's ego in the last few minutes.

What really would have been a surprise ending is if M. Night Shyamalan skipped the clever twist and delivered something realistic that was suggested by the rest of the plot that led up to the end.

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