Every time there’s buzz around a movie, I promise myself I won’t give in to the hype. And every time I get sucked in.
M. Night Shyamalan’s Split was no exception. No matter what kind of drivel the man has produced since The 6th Sense, it seems like the world keeps hoping that he’ll finally come up with something to equal the well-deserved success of his breakout film.
Now, full disclosure, I am not really in a position to hate on Shyamalan. Like my tendency to believe the hype around movies advertised as good, I am just as likely to pass on movies everyone deems as unworthy. I gave Unbreakable and The Village a shot (and regretted it), but everything after that either flew under my radar, or just seemed too awful to waste my time on. (I do intend to give After Earth a shot at some point, because it looks like The Room-level unintentionally, hilariously bad). The one exception was 2015’s The Visit, which was laughably inadequate.
But then people started raving about Split, dubbing it his big comeback movie, and so I caved. And I honestly can’t see what everyone is talking about, because the first half bored me to tears, and the second half was just plain stupid.
For one thing, I have a problem with the fact that it’s labeled as a horror film. The largest part of the movie is a thriller at best, and not a very good one at that. If there’s anything positive to say about Split it’s that James McAvoy’s performance is interesting, albeit exaggerated to the point where each of the characters he portrays is a caricature. At the hands of a better director, I’d be confident that was intentional; with this one, I’m not too sure.
The story goes like this: three girls are abducted on their way home from a birthday party at the mall. Two are friends, and the third girl is allowed to tag along out of pity. They wake up in a locked room, terrorized by a man they soon discover is not exactly all there. Apparently he suffers from some bizarre form of split personality disorder, as evidenced by the therapist treating him, who believes her patients have unlocked some supernatural secret to the human condition.
For starters, this premise just sounds ludicrous. While I appreciate the fact that dissociative identity disorder is controversial enough among the psychiatric community to allow for loose interpetation in fiction that doesn’t really raise eyebrows, I don’t see how attaching a supernatural element to the protagonist’s condition makes this plot device better. If anything, it feels like a cop-out. Unlike 6th Sense, where the supernatural side is handled expertly and, despite the initial doubts we may have had about the twist actually working as a plot device, a re-watch takes care of most plot-holes, Split plants the supernatural seed early on and just lets the thread dangle unexplored until the last 20 minutes or so, and even then it’s largely underwhelming. (I could be wrong. I refuse to watch this movie again to prove my point.)
Even if I’m willing to suspend my disbelief long enough to see it through, the victim-being-held-captive scenario is too played out to be automatically interesting without actually giving the viewer reason to care. And, unfortunately, not a lot about the three girls makes them sympathetic apart from the awful predicament they’re in: there’s no real character development for Claire and Marcia, and Casey is only slightly more intriguing as a character, but none of the forced flashbacks to her childhood really add to her character building.
The flashbacks are problematic to begin with: the tone is drastically different from the rest of the movie, thereby decimating any level of suspense the film tries to build every time we cut to the scenes of a cute young girl (who looks nothing like the grown up version of Casey) in the woods. On a more personal note, the animal lover in me simply can’t sympathize with a little girl taught to “outsmart” a deer in order to kill it. (How, HOW is hunting considered a SPORT is beyond me, but that’s a whole different tangent I probably shouldn’t go off on here). That aside, are we supposed to assume that outdoors family activities and her personal drama, revealed too late to make significant impact, somehow equipped her with some kind of insight into a mentally unstable man and the way to handle him?
Nothing really happens in the first half of the movie. The girls’ half-assed attempts at getting out are ridiculous, and the rest is just an exercise in cinematic masturbation, with Shyamalan attempting to make his artsy-fartsy film appear more substantial than it actually is, and McAvoy apparently given free reign to display his acting chops without actually accomplishing anything in the way of story-telling. The horror genre in general lends itself to over-the-top performances, but there’s a line between genre tropes and hamming it up, and Shyamalan crossed that line long ago.
The contrast between the performances and the way the characters are fleshed out is yet another element that makes the final product terribly uneven, to say nothing of the characters’ motivations. Dr. Fletcher appears almost subdued, her main concern being her own research, rather than her suspicion about the very real possibility that two of her patient’s suppressed personalities might be doing something dangerous. The doctor’s research is amateurish at best. She gives at least one example of evidence that supports her out-there theories in the movie, yet the only actual findings she chose to submit for review were those related to a dog? How does that make her credible in the least?
Her performance leaves much to be desired, making her even less believable as a legitimate psychiatrist, to say nothing of the random bullshit scenes randomly inserted in the movie: the one with Shyamalan making his usual cameo features the clunkiest, most out of place piece of dialogue in the entire film; the scene with her friend watching TV is just useless.
The girls are even worse: Claire’s sniffling and frightened expression during their initial shock at being abducted and held captive is the only thing betraying any sort of recognition of the peril they’re in; Marcia looks almost catatonic for the most part. Casey’s initially cool demeanor is too strange for a teenage girl. I don’t care if you were raised by nutcase survivalists or were abused as a kid, you don’t react to being abducted by lounging on the bed and shutting down any plans for escape. To top it off, I can’t think of any situation like this where the each of the victims just act on their own instead of coming together as a group to figure things out.
When they do attempt to escape, things take a turn for the ridiculous: Claire discovers a hollow piece of drywall on the ceiling and starts smashing through it using her shoe, rather than reach for any of the furniture in the room, like, I dunno, a chair or something sturdy that would make faster work of it. She climbs up into the hole, again without utilizing any of the furnishings to prop herself up. She runs through an oddly spacious maze of vents and reaches what may or may not be a dead end, but before further exploring or at least searching for something she could use as a weapon, she LOCKS HERSELF INSIDE A LOCKER. And she is supposed the “smart” one, according to her friend.
Then we have an even more eye-roll inducing scene in the kitchen, where OCD Kevin prepares sandwiches for Marcia and Casey, his back turned to them for several minutes, and Marcia not only decides to attack him without even trying to somehow telegraph her intentions to Casey so she can have her back, but when she does, she whacks him with a folding chair on the BACK instead of aiming, I don’t know, for his HEAD? Even WWE wrestlers make this stuff look more believable, for fuck’s sake.
And then you have Casey, who not only refuses to engage with the other two girls any time they attempt an attack or plan their escape, but also remains cool as a cucumber throughout the whole thing and barely shows any emotion, until she realizes there’s no way out of ‘Hedwig”s room, as the “window” she was counting on is nothing but a drawing. Yes, her ability to have a siingle tear roll down her cheek is impressive, but is that really the way a high-school girl would react to her impending doom at the hands of a psychopath? I struggle to see a connection between her days camping with her dad as a kid and trying to manipulate the weakest of her captor’s personalities. Are we supposed to draw parallels between an abused girl and a demented 9-year-old kid with a lisp?
Even Kevin’s presumably extreme case of OCD is puzzling. He doesn’t slice the sandwich straight and feels compelled to start over, makes the girls remove their clothes because they are dirty, but doesn’t care about the dump he and the other 22 personalities reside in? If his OCD were so severe, he wouldn’t have time to abduct kids – he’d just spend his days scrubing away at every dingy surface.
Not that this is the only problem with his multiple personalities. For one thing, if you’re going to assert that someone has 23 of them, might as well have a few more of them surface, because otherwise, what’s the point? For another, does each personality have its own wardrobe? Its own room, for that matter? The man changes outfits faster than a quick-change act, and it’s obviously a device used just for our benefit, which is a shame, because, if anything, McAvoy’s voice and mannerisms are more than enough to signal when each personality takes over. Shyamalan plays fast and loose with his own rules, and it never becomes clear what information the personalities share with each other and what triggers the transition between them. Why does speaking Kevin’s name make him stop, and why does the doctor not take advantage of the many opportunities she had to use that information, and instead just writes it down for the girls to find?
(Also, how big is that bunker, to afford each of the 23 personalities’ living space and clothes?)
Speaking of the bunker: who, in their right minds, would give a mental patient free reign in the underground zoo facility where he’s employed? Oh, I know: the kind of dumbass who hears a distress call on the radio and dismisses it as a prank. Repeatedly. Moving on.
When we get to the second half, where things finally pick up, the movie doesn’t really get any better.
Perhaps the best part of this entire film was Hedwig’s dance. It was as hilarious as it was terrifying, and, on second thought, the whole movie may have been much better if they’d done away with the split personality altogether and the crazy abductor-murdered was this bizarre manchild.
That’s not what we got, however. [Spoiler alert] I wasn’t expecting Kevin to basically do a Hulk impression, but in the end it was underwhelming, probably because all the accounts of this “supernatural” entity, twice the size of his other personalities, described a literal beast, and all we got was a very veiny James McAvoy with a golden-greenish tint. Equally underwhelming: the whole cannibalism angle, which was built up considerably and was then thrown in almost as an afterthought. The murder of his therapist could have been terrfying had the bear hug been a bit more graphic, but even then, dr. Fletcher couldn’t really sell it (again, maybe Shyamalan could benefit from watching Raw or Smackdown every once in a while).
The revelation about Casey’s past – her abuse by her uncle, her father’s death – was only partially paid off in the final scenes where she gets rescued, but the whole thing felt disjointed. Shyamalan basically achieved a wonky melange of genres, where psychological thriller meets b-movie level horror and the result just leaves you unsatisfied.
I wouldn’t be too hard on this movie had it been advertised as the campy horror flick it actually becomes after the one hour mark. Given the glowing reviews, however, it was a big let down.
If this is his return to form, then maybe he should just stop making movies altogether.