M. Night Shyamalan took the world by storm with his atmospheric and tragic ghost story The Sixth Sense. Since then he has repeatedly taken on moody pieces that range from science fiction to gothic, and now with his latest movie, Split, he plunges into the waters of psychological horror.
Split is about three young girls who are abducted by a man (James McAvoy), who happens to be exhibiting 23 distinct personalities. In fact the personalities are so distinct, that each of the identities actually exhibits different physical traits. While they all reside within the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb, each personality is so well developed that even one of them requires insulin injections due to his diabetes, despite the fact that not one of the other personalities shares the affliction.
We meet and see some of these characters (primarily Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig) and get to know them through the interaction each of those personalities has with the kidnapped girls, as well as through Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). As times goes on we come to realize that there may be a 24th personality simply known as The Beast, an individual that Dr. Fletcher does not believe in. The film tells of the girls attempts at escape, all the while different personalities interact with the victims, each in his, or even her, own way.
I wanted to like this film. I had seen clips with McAvoy in the part of Kevin, the mentally damaged young man who succumbs to the will and domination of some of the “stronger” personalities, and what was being shared looked absolutely chilling. As I watched the first third of Split I found myself intrigued with where this movie appeared to be going, as well as allowing myself to become totally pulled in to the horror aspect of it, but as the movie progressed I started to notice that the presence of any substantial story content was rapidly dwindling, as if Shyamalan did not know how to write anything beyond a simple treatment.
Shyamalan, who both wrote and directed Split, is also well known for the twists he likes to put in towards the end of his films, which serves to take the facts of the story and present them in a completely new light, but sadly the only twist we got was at the very end of the film, and it was so cheap it was as if Shyamalan chose to pat himself on the back by letting everyone know how terribly clever he is. It didn’t contribute to the story, but instead was totally self-referential and self-serving.
Another disappointing element is the casting of Betty Buckley. As Kevin’s therapist, we come into this film with a certain expectation of the role she may play, but in the end her presence comes off as totally unnecessary as she doesn’t bring about any change in either the story, or the antagonist’s arc. Ultimately her presence is meaningless, which suggests that this may have been a form of stunt casting.
However this movie isn’t entirely without merit. Anya Taylor-Joy plays one of the young kidnapped girls, and while her face may not show much in the way of expression, what she was able to communicate with her eyes alone made all of her reactions more than believable. And then, there is James McAvoy. Having seen him originally in the made-for-TV adaptation of Children of Dune, McAvoy (who was cast in the lead when Joaquin Phoenix pulled out of the project) continued pursuing a variety of roles until he really grabbed on tight to the pop-culture brass ring in playing a young Charles Xavier for the X-Men movies. While he continued to play a multitude of roles, his portrayal as Kevin Crumb (and Barry, Jade, Hedwig, etc.) in this movie is a true acting tour-de-force. On a dime he switches from one character to the next, each with his, or her, own speech pattern as well as facial expressions. Even as he would exit one scene only to re-emerge as someone different there was complete understand from everyone in the audience as to which character we would be seeing. Even with the commonalities that each of the personalities shared in face and body, the manner in which he used his physical attributes always helped to keep whatever suspension of disbelief that was necessary for this film.
Unfortunately their performances, strong as they were, simply could not redeem this film in any possible way. Despite whatever approach M. Knight may have had when he started working on Split, it sadly became a film that was all about stylistic nuances in horror, but without any through storyline. This movie was basically Style over Substance. Shymalan attempted to deliver a horror film, but instead failed to create a coherent storyline with a proper denouement. Instead it was a film that had a number of misfires and wasted opportunities. Going into the theater I knew that I wanted to like this movie, but in the end was left feeling disappointed.
I give this movie only 1 out of 5 psychiatrist couches.
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