Split (2017)

20 Jan

james-mcavoy-split-image.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I never lost faith in M. Night Shyamalan. He gets a bad rap because his failures failed tremendously, especially taking his earlier successes into account. But that’s really not fair because other famous directors have gone through career slumps and came back from them; yet for some reason, it’s “cool” to make fun of Shyamalan. I knew some day, he would find himself back on the right track. With his previous film, “The Visit,” he seemed to find his footing, and even though it wasn’t “great,” it was still a welcome return for Shyamalan after such disappointing messes as “The Happening,” “After Earth,” and especially “The Last Airbender.” It was like he let the studio system corrupt him after he’d done many good things for it (particularly “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs”), and he made a smaller movie in an attempt to find the magic of filmmaking again.

Shyamalan’s follow-up to “The Visit” is another “small movie” called “Split,” and while I don’t think it’s quite up there with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” or “Signs,” it still shows us why we held Shyamalan in high regard in the first place. This is an imaginative, tense, even funny psychological-thriller that shows the talent of M. Night Shyamalan on display.

“Split” begins as three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, Haley Lu Richardson as Claire, and Jessica Sula as Marcia) are abducted by an odd man (James McAvoy). While kept in an underground bunker of sorts, they find that he’s a man of many personalities. It turns out he has dissociative identity disorder, with 23 different personalities (a few of which we get to meet, like mischievous 9-year-old Hedwig, feminine Ms. Patricia, and obsessive-compulsive Dennis). But there seems to be a 24th personality awakening soon—one the others refer to as “the Beast,” who will “feed” on the three girls. Meanwhile, as the man has frequent sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the self-proclaimed “crazy old lady from ‘The Happening’”), Dr. Fletcher has to figure out what exactly “the Beast” is before it’s too late.

(And that’s as far as I’ll go in describing the story. Don’t worry—this review is spoiler-free.)

Shyamalan still has tricks up his sleeve when it comes to the plot. There are many neat twists and turns in his storytelling; the more that was discovered about what’s really happening here, the more tense everything became. By the time this film reached its final act, I was on-edge, with goosebumps that wouldn’t go away until the film ended…and even then, I had trouble shaking it off. Good job, Shyamalan.

Almost a majority of “Split” is kept in this undisclosed location somewhere underground (flashbacks of last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane”), and with Shyamalan’s direction as well as the superb cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, it’s easy to feel the confinement and the anxiety of each situation that comes.

Shyamalan also isn’t afraid to make us laugh at times, particularly when it comes to the weirdness of the disorder and how the girls react to it in both confusion and fear. Some of the comedic bits belong to the personality of Hedwig, the 9-year-old troublemaker within McAvoy…as well as some of the most frightening bits.

James McAvoy takes center-stage, and he turns in a brilliant performance as a man of many identities. McAvoy has a complicated task to pull off, differentiating each personality from the other (and the other…and the other…), and he amazingly succeeds. This is an actor’s dream come true, and McAvoy goes all out for this role. One particular moment for which I have to commend McAvoy is a close-up shot in which he instantly transitions from one role to another—how he did that, I would love to know.

Of the three girls, only Anya Taylor-Joy (who was also very good in “The Witch”) makes an impression. She plays Casey, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time after being invited to a birthday party of one of the two other girls out of pity (and she was riding home with the others when they were captured). As the film starts, we see her as an uninteresting, stereotypical outsider-girl. But as the film continues, we get glimpses into her past to make us understand more of who she is, which makes us glad for moments when she starts to grow as she tries to find ways out of each predicament in this claustrophobic hellhole. Even when we’re questioning why she doesn’t do certain things at times, we get to understand it better, the more we find out about her.

However, the other two girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) aren’t given the same treatment. I didn’t particularly care for them, as they were only there to cry, cower, and say obvious things like “we have to get out of here” and “I’m scared”. Granted, we don’t want to see anything bad happen to them, but they don’t do much to make us care much for them either.

I would love to talk about the final moment. But again, this review is spoiler-free and there aren’t any hints or clues or anything given by me. All I will say about it is it will delight people and annoy others—I have to say, it took me a while to think about how I felt about it, but I couldn’t help but admire it. I even bought it more after thinking about it. That’s all I’ll say about it…but, by God, I’d love to talk about it! (Sorry, lost myself for a moment there.)

M. Night Shyamalan is having fun with his movies again, and it definitely shows with “The Visit” and “Split,” two inventive thrillers. Since “Split” is, by definition, probably more intriguing than “The Visit” (and that was a damn fun movie), then it’s safe to say that Shyamalan is back in the game. “Split” has its problems (including a slow first act), but as it progresses, it becomes a neat thriller that reminds us of what Shyamalan can do when he puts his heart and soul into it. Let’s hope he keeps up the good work in the future.

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