reviewed by Tom-Tom
We had just about given up on M. Night Shyamalan. He started strong with The Sixth Sense which, while an imperfect film, had strong performances by Haley Joel Osment, Bruce Willis, and Donnie Wahlberg. I didn’t really like Unbreakable much thinking the twist contrived and implausible, even for a Shyamalan movie. The direction seemed clunky with the family drama scenes almost unbearable to watch despite then collaborator James Newton Howard’s beautiful score. Later it was hit (Signs) or miss (Lady in the Water) until, like director Robert Rodriguez, he entered the “making movies for the kids in my life” phase of his career with the panned The Last Airbender, and After Earth rankling in the memory of the those who didn’t hate the films for being bad but because of the lost chances, the casting choices of Airbender, and not making good enough use of the Smith family in Earth. Suddenly with The Visit, Shyamalan returned to his low-budget roots not exactly reinventing the shaky camera footage genre but giving the audience a few new refreshing scares and a really nice twist for once. If only his child actors were up to the Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin standard as in Signs but low budget is low budget. Now, with Split, M. Night Shyamalan is back and he has talented actors, the cinematographer from It Follows, and even a different composer for the soundtrack. I have to say, it’s a nice fit.
The opening credits themselves are creepy in their bare, generic, presentation. A name is presented and then split into 16, 32 small square copies within the background like some power point effect between slides from the 90’s. The bare bones feel is supported by a percussive score like a slightly upbeat version of Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta which Stanley Kubrick used to great effect in The Shining. This version has the same random crashing of cymbals, anyway. I’m only a casual viewer of movies, but I have to say, the editing in Shyamalan films has gotten better as well as the general direction. Even in his best films, the awkward reactions of characters, the overlong footage of them turning around to notice something on the wall, and then saying there is something on the wall took away from the suspense or the drama of the moments. There was little of that in The Visit (the amateur rapper scenes were a bit awkward), and very little of that here in Split. Editing, direction, and the performances are all smooth. Even the always notorious director cameo goes off without much of a hitch. You can tell it’s a good cameo if you don’t notice him, if he doesn’t stick out in the scene the way he did in The Village despite not even showing his face so much.
I have to say a few words about James McAvoy. What. An. Actor. This guy takes up anything and does it well from mutant to corrupt Scottish cop, to flawed Scottish doctor, to Narnian Faun, to sinister Art Auctioneer. Now he takes on 23 different personalities (of which we see only about 10, unfortunately). His facial expressions, his accents, from lispy kid to blue collar Philadelphian, to artsy SoHo, to vanilla American, to English New Age hippie, to diabetic Philadelphian housewife, are tremendous. Seeing one blend into another on his face is a master class for all actors everywhere.
Another aspect of Split which I feel was handled well was the respect for D.I.D. (Dissociative Identity Disorder), which isn’t just a syndrome we can look and laugh at like some carnival attraction. It almost always comes about as a result of tragedy or abuse. A person is pushed so far by repeated tragedy that he/she can no longer handle reality and invents a stronger, fierce personality to protect him/herself, to be shielded from the terribly harsh reality. Typically no more than one additional personality exists, the strong one and the injured one, These aspects are all very intelligently and interestingly explained in snippets by McAvoy’s character(s)’ psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). In the deleted scenes, she actually has an ongoing conversation with a fellow psychiatrist played by Sterling K. Brown. They were all taken out for some reason which is a shame.
To sum things up, some of McAvoy’s personalities believe in the coming of the Beast, and are taking steps to ensure its arrival by kidnapping girls, which happens in scary realistic P.O.V. mode. The girls are held somewhere warehouse-like guarded by various personalities and are constatly arguing among each other about whether to fight or wait. The close and closed setting gives very little hope of escape and repeated sessions with Dr. Fletcher by McAvoy bring the supposed coming of the Beast closer and closer. Ominous hints are dropped about what this will mean for the three girls as many plots merge together in a suspenseful finale. I felt a bit let down at the end expecting, in typical long-time Shyamalan movie watcher fashion some big twist imagining what they could be but to no avail. There’s a cameo which seeks to connect this film with another but I don’t think it worked. What with the Dark Universe before us now, I think we have enough movie franchises for now.