Film Review: ‘Split’

Split
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

A welcome return to form from 'The Sixth Sense' director M. Night Shyamalan, whose unhinged new mind-bender is a worthy extension of his early work.

Multiple personality disorder, like amnesia, is one of those aberrant mental states that has been a curse to those who suffer, but a gift to screenwriters over the years. From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” to Brian De Palma’s “Dressed to Kill,” filmmakers have long exploited how little we truly understand about the condition — though none has pushed it quite as far as M. Night Shyamalan does in “Split,” treating dissociative identity disorder not as the twist, but as the premise on which this wickedly compelling abduction thriller is founded: James McAvoy plays a lunatic kidnapper with at least 23 personalities to his name.

Rest assured, there are plenty of proper twists to follow, none more unexpected than the fact that Shyamalan himself has managed to get his groove back after a slew of increasingly atrocious misfires. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine any writer/director sustaining a career based almost entirely on surprising audiences. And though he lost us for a while there — water-intolerant aliens, anyone? — by trading on ingenuity rather than big-budget special effects, Shyamalan has created a tense, frequently outrageous companion piece to one of his earliest and best movies.

But Shyamalan isn’t the only one getting a makeover here. Presumably tired of playing handsome, uncomplicated leading men, McAvoy — a talented Scottish actor best known as the young Professor X in the “X-Men” prequels — has recently expanded his repertoire to include unsavory creeps in films such as “Trance” and “Filth.” Those roles may as well have been practice laps for the Olympic main event that is “Split,” in which his performance is splintered between a gay fashion designer, a renegade nine-year-old, an obsessive-compulsive control freak, and a crazy church lady, among others.

Shyamalan introduces these wildly different personae one at a time, revealing them through the eyes of the movie’s three main characters, a trio of teenage girls taken prisoner from a high school birthday party, who wake up — like the victims in a nightmarish new subgenre of sadism that includes films like “Saw” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” — in a bunker-like cell with only the dimmest clue of the fate that awaits them. Popular above ground, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are the first to panic, reacting as most audiences probably would in their shoes, while brooding outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems unusually calm … at first, at least.

Trapped underground in an undetermined location (the actual spot is the film’s next-to-last twist), the girls spend several days trying to devise ways to escape. Each attempt will have moviegoers digging their fingernails deeper into their armrests, as McAvoy’s totally unpredictable character manages to gain the upper hand, while the girls try to make sense of the information before them. Meanwhile, to make things a bit easier on the audience, their captor slips out at regular intervals to visit his shrink, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the classic “Carrie” actress who also appeared in Shyamalan’s “The Happening”), a sympathetic ear who dispenses exposition by the wheelbarrow.

The more we learn, the scarier McAvoy’s character(s) starts to sound. At the same time, among the would-be victims, only Casey feels fleshed out, as Shyamalan gradually reveals the young lady’s troubled backstory via flashbacks to childhood hunting trips. Taylor-Joy, who recently starred in Robert Eggers’ “The Witch,” has a knack for suggesting dark undercurrents to superficially lovely characters, to the extent that we start to wonder whether McAvoy has meet his match.

Shyamalan’s goal is to keep us guessing, and in that respect, “Split” is a resounding success — even if in others, it could have you rolling your eyes. Still, scaling down to a relatively modest budget and just a handful of locations has forced him to get creative with the script, while a handful of new hires — most notably “It Follows” DP Mike Gioulakis, whose crisp, steady-handed gaze plays against the gritty confusion of the genre — elevate the result in such a way that we’re more inclined to consider the characters’ psychology, even though Shyamalan appears to be making it up to suit his purposes.

Ultimately, “Split” belongs to McAvoy, who has ample scenery to chew, but doesn’t stop there — he practically swallows the camera with his tiger-like teeth. With his head shaved, the actor depends ever so slightly on costume changes (sly contributions from Paco Delgado, who worked on “The Danish Girl”), but otherwise conveys his transformations through body language, facial expression, and accent, as his various selves take “the light” — since, per Fletcher, only one can come out to play at a time. As in “Psycho,” there’s a tendency to over-explain, and while Shyamalan is basically making up rules for dissociative identity disorder as he goes along, the condition has afforded McAvoy the role of his career.

Film Review: 'Split'

Reviewed at AFI Fest, Nov. 15, 2016. (Also in Fantastic Fest.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production

A Universal Pictures release and presentation of a Blinding Edge Pictures, BlumHouse Prods. production. Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock. Executive producers: Ashwin Rajan, Steven Schneider, Kevin Frakes, Buddy Patrick.

Crew

Director, writer: M. Night Shyamalan. Camera (color, widescreen): Mike Gioulakis. Editor: Luke Franco Ciarrocchi.

With

James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

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  1. Great movie shamalyn is back,and McAvoy really impressed me makes u believe he is really someone different each time, definitely my favorite movie right now

  2. Jassy Rahal says:

    great review…everything u said in the review i truly felt it that way..! great job !

  3. amell says:

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  4. mag says:

    One of the stupidest..viewing .disappointing.movies I’ve eve.en.I have seen After Scholl specials that kept you more on the edge of your seat than this hunk of hunk..waste of money and time

  5. Karen says:

    For me the sub story about the girl and the molestation by her uncle which continued from her early childhood into her teenage years and was going to continue even after she escaped was unsettling. This was a very very dark movie. No happy ending for anyone. I left the theatre feeling burdened by the subject matter of the movie, not entertained.

  6. Darren Arthur says:

    SPLIT – wow a must see movie,ignore any derogatory reviews and comments.James McAvoys’ stellar cameo performance is mesmerising,his portrayal of “the hoarde” is frighteningly powerful and at times tender. M Night Shyamalans’ best movie ever,Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey is totally believable in the role of a reclusive teenage outcast hiding her own dark,disturbing background. A must see -five stars.As for other comments saying how it exploits, every movie exploits a condition simply by portraying a character suffering from something,it is not a documenatry and people who cannot distinguish fact from fiction should not watch or read anything .

  7. Helen Cunningham says:

    I’m glad this review leads with an acknowledgement of how exploitative this movie is of dissociative identity disorder. DID might not be widely understood, but as someone who suffers from it, I understand it plenty. It sucks to have something that’s held me back so thoroughly in life be held up in a such a twisted and ridiculous form. I hope some day I can go to movies without cringing at how monstrously mental illness is portrayed.

  8. Rudy Mario says:

    Keeping fingers crossed. Hope it will not be a disappointment.

  9. David says:

    This is a horribly written article about a horribly written movie, you’re essentially praising Shyamalan and McAvoy for sensationalising and demonising mental illness, capitalising on people’s fears and prejudices using tired old tropes that have a real world impact on people with mental disorders. Please reconsider your support of this movie, it’s garbage.

    • Patrick says:

      Take it easy, guy. This is not a non-fiction, true story movie so you have to take the plot details with a grain of salt. Why does everyone have to be so sensitive?

      This was a well-thought, clever movie that ultimately does not demonize anyone, it just entertains. Watching it does not scare myself (or probably anyone else who saw it) to interact with someone who has a mental disorder.

      Its a move (Fiction). Get over it.

    • Monique says:

      Have you actually seen the movie? You can’t judge it just by the review. It was awesome!

  10. Susan says:

    Signs by M Night was an amazing moving that still seems fresh to me, viewing it over 10 years later. Your review of Split essentially ‘lost’ me when you claimed Signs was M Night ‘lost us’ for a while.

  11. Marlene: there is a strong, if perhaps subtle, difference between what a movie-goer might “enjoy” or “like”, and what is actually a good (as in, well-made) cinematic venture. Movie reviewers/critics have a hard time with people not being able to recognize the difference between personal taste and actual knowledge of the art of cinema. It may be that critics enjoy a film, despite knowing it is not up to snuff – they may also hate films that are great; after all, movie critics are human too. The difference between them and the general movie-going population is precisely that they can differentiate between personal taste and the actual art of criticism. Your “disagreeing” with critics is therefore completely moot, and you are perfectly free to make up your own mind as to what you may or may not want to see and enjoy.

  12. Marlene Wheaton says:

    Dear Editor, Your comment about M. Night Shyamalan, that “he lost us for a while there — water-intolerant aliens, anyone?” must refer to his movie “SIGNS”. I really liked that movie and have watched it several times. You shouldn’t judge a movie and mislead the reader audience. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix MADE that movie. I also enjoyed watching “10 Cloverfield Lane” with my grandson. I often wonder who rates these movies, because I usually disagree with them. I am going to be first in line for the new film “Split”. My teenage grandson wants to accompany me. We can’t wait!

    • Jon Hayes says:

      So it’s good because you liked it. Makes sense. I mean, even if Signs is actually one of the dumbest movies ever. Not sure what Cloverfield Lane has to do with anything, except that you bringing it up gives all a glimpse into your at least moderately disjointed mind. Maybe you think they were directed by the same person? Maybe you just like awful movies? Either way, see whatever you want. No one cares.

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