To quote LL Cool J, “Don’t call it a comeback.” Although it was refreshing to walk out of an M. Night Shyamalan film not dripping with disappointment, Split fell short of its lofty potential. However, it still managed to reach my expectations (which weren’t particularly high). On its opening day I saw many articles referencing the director’s explanation of the film’s ending, which was more than a bit disconcerting. The Shyamalan twist is a staple of his work, but it’s a well run painfully dry at this point. Thankfully, the end was more surprise than rug-pull and doesn’t require an explanation as much as it does familiarity with his previous films.
Criticisms of this movie shaming its portrayal of mental illness are undeserved. It’s a work of fiction, not a case study on dissociative identity disorder. At no point is there any misrepresentation regarding a broader social statement about the serious nature of mental illness or the disorder specifically, it’s merely a vehicle for the story to function through. On the other hand, an article I read pinpoints and details its failure to properly understand the illness and what makes it truly horrifying.
Not surprisingly, this movie suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, much like its main character. It’s not quite horror and not acutely tuned as a psychological thriller. The ambiguity leaves a void filled mainly by amusement, resulting in an enjoyable overall experience. This is due almost exclusively to the masterful performance of James McAvoy, far removed from his paternal depiction of Professor X. Commanding, dynamic, charismatic and outright infectious…even with the heart of his character absent from the screenplay (or at least the final cut). His brilliance worn on his sleeve. Prominently in the foreground rather than subtly tucked away in a pocket. Now I understand it’s only January, but I’m calling it anyway; it will be next to impossible to supplant him as the favorite to take home all the Best Actor awards come year’s end. It was just one of those performances you can’t get enough of. He plays Kevin, or more accurately several personalities competing for control of Kevin’s body. Through the course of that competition, dominant personalities rise to the surface. With agendas of their own resulting in the kidnapping of three young women, these personalities prepare for the next step in their collective journey.
Teetering dangerously on the edge of cliche, many of its elements are recycled; victimized and sexualized young women, creepy subterranean basements, and captor/captive escape-based thrills. Anya Taylor-Joy does a nice job as the protagonist Casey Cooke. She delivered a measured and at times emotional performance in a bit of a return to form. Sadly, her depiction of the title character in Morgan (2016) left much to be desired in comparison to her breakthrough in The Witch (2015). Although her Split character appeared to be the typical outsider, her backstory provides a deeper level of understanding for both character and audience. The other two girls in the film are hollow representations and serve solely to juxtapose Taylor-Joy’s lead. Furthermore, the sexualization of these young women is trite. The screenplay utilizes one of Kevin’s personalities with OCD to methodically strip these girls of their clothing as a plot device. Additionally, Taylor-Joy’s ample cleavage is featured prominently down the final stretch. This leads me to believe Shyamalan felt the need to adhere to genre stereotypes rather than risking another dud on an unproven path.
West Dylan Thordson’s original score was good and loaded with tension but it felt forced. There was no climb, no journey and the film seemed to lean heavily on the score for a sense of dread rather than build it accordingly. Those who have a keen ear and play close attention may notice some clues that I didn’t. The cinematography by Michael Gioulakis was a similar case. There were some nicely framed artsy shots, but coming from mostly short films it was difficult for him to create a sense of cohesion. Costume designer Paco Delgado did a marvelous job creating a fundamental basis for each character. He was essential to breathing life into a myriad of characters through their wardrobes. At the end of the day, this film succeeds where others already have. But, it also loses points for the same reason.
Recommendation: Go see this movie for James McAvoy! Seriously, he’s just that damn good. I can’t think of many other performances that captivating and diverse. If you are a fan of Shyamalan, this is one of his better recent efforts even though it feels like he wrote it starting at the end and worked his way to the beginning.
Grade: C (James McAvoy A+)