*** Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie “Split”, If you’re planning to see it, stop here and come back afterwards to see if you agree with my review ***
I saw Split today, the new M. Night Shyamalan movie. Having it fresh in my mind, I thought I’d do a little movie review, as I haven’t done one before, and felt that I needed to.
Let me start by saying that I am a huge fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s first two movies, Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Every movie he’s done since has fallen a little flat, failing to capture the verve of those two.
Split is a horror/thriller on a par with his later movies. Marginally better, but not by a lot. It’s a shame, because right through the movie I was thinking “Come on M. Night, you can do it with this one, you can make a really good movie.” But as more time elapsed my fears were realised.
Let’s talk about the story. The main character, Kevin, has Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), with 23 distinct personalities (called the Horde) brought on by child abuse. Three of Kevin’s personalities, a heavy handed, obsessive compulsive male called Dennis, Patricia, an upright, schoolmarmish woman, and an insecure 9 year old called Hedwig, have taken over the other personalities, fuelled by a belief that a 24th personality, known as the Beast, will come forth with the power to protect them all.
The Dennis personality has been stalking two girls, and kidnaps them along with Casey, another girl who is a survivor of child abuse. Dennis locks the girls away in a room (and later, separate rooms) in his underground haunt, planning to use them as “sacred food” for the Beast.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychologist, Doctor Fletcher, who is an expert on DID, is contacted by email by some of Kevin’s other personalities, because they object to what the three dominant personalities have done. Dennis tries to put Dr Fletcher off the scent, but the good Doctor is wise to this, working out that Denis is trying to hide something.
Dr Fletcher has posited that Kevin’s DID personalities can enable physical changes in his body to match each personality (one of the female personalities is diabetic, for example), and that they may be a potential next step in human evolution. It’s a bit X-men, but you get where the director is going with this.
Eventually, Casey, the final survivor, confronts the Beast, who exhibits unusual strength, wall climbing and an ability to shrug off conventional attacks. The Beast identifies that Casey is a victim of long term abuse like he is (she is “pure”, he says), and escapes.
A surprising scene takes place at the end. Via a slow dolly through a roadside diner as the news reports discuss the outcome, a girl at the bar remembers a similar case from years before with a man in a wheelchair. She can’t remember his name and the camera ends on Bruce Willis, who says his name was “Mister Glass”. Anyone who has seen Unbreakable, will remember that Bruce played an invulnerable man who faced off against Samuel L. Jackson’s Mister Glass. So in effect, Split is a semi-sequel to that movie, and the ending is no doubt setting up a proper sequel to Unbreakable. Say franchise, anybody?
So what was it that didn’t grab me about this movie? It was well directed, with Shyamalan’s Hitchcock obsession apparent in his scene compositions and shots, it was edited well with a suitably eerie soundtrack. James McAvoy was excellent as Kevin (although a little over the top by the end), as was Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey. But something was missing.
I think the problem was the script. Only McAvoy’s and Taylor-Joys’ characters have any meat to them, and even then the scenes are almost ham fisted in their approach. As a result the two girls are killed and we as an audience don’t feel the loss. Although audiences can sympathise with Casey’s abusive past and current plight, by the time she confronts the Beast any concern we should feel is lacking. All the amazing pan shots and skillful edits in the world won’t make up for audience emotional disconnection.
While Casey uses her past as a victim of horrific abuse to advantage over Kevin, it never really leads anywhere. Any form of empowerment she has is whisked away by the end, as she sits in the police car and her abusive uncle arrives to pick her up. There is an expectation that she will do something now, but it fades along with the shot. Any potential transformation for Casey, as a result of both her abusive past and the kidnapping she’s experienced, falls flat.
The Bruce Willis scene seems, on face value, more the case of a director who has reached the end of the road, saying “hey, look! This is like a sequel to one of my good movies.” It’s like Shyamalan admitting he is out of ideas.
And Split is not scary. At no point did the dramatic tension get to a level where I was worried about Casey. In fact, many of the outcomes were telegraphed from early on. I expected the other girls to die. I expected Casey to survive, and I expected her abuse to be the reason why she did.
Split was a disappointing return for M. Night Shyamalan. I expected more, I wanted more, I so wanted this to be good. With the exception of that closing scene setting up the sequel to one of my all-time favourites, the movie ended up being purposeless. It had the potential to make some lasting and important statements about child abuse in modern society and the impact of serious mental health issues, but in the end these became mere plot points (and almost tacky ones at that), with any gravity lost by the time of the b-grade horror movie finale.
I’m hoping that Unbreakable 2 will be a lot better. It better be. I don’t want yet another of the movies of my youth being vandalised by a terrible sequel.