Movie Review - Split (2017)

I can't talk about this film, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, without talking about the context of Shyamalan's career. Shyamalan made the Oscar-nominated, smash hit, The Sixth Sense (1999). That film did so well, he was instantly dubbed the next Steven Spielberg. His follow-up film was Unbreakable (2000), which was also great, as it was a realistic look at comic book heroes. However, starting with the film after that, Signs (2002), Shyamalan's quality started to go down. His next few movies, including The Village, Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, were increasingly awful, both in critical response and box office receipts.

His technique and even his choices in camera direction are incredible. Yet, his writing and his acting direction at that time were the principal problems. Having huge budgets at his disposal and no limits or restraints were most likely contributing factors to his downfall. Things turned around when he released The Visit (2015), a low-budget, horror film that's done in the style of found-footage, which puts limits and restraints that did wonders to focus him.

If the past decade represented a decline in Shyamalan's output, this film represents an upswing. Because he's not doing the style of found-footage, his cinematography is allowed to be better. He reverts back to camera choices he's used in films like The Happening, but because his writing and acting direction are more focused and fleshy, it's overall a vast improvement. What this film also has is something that Shyamalan's films have lacked in a while, and that's empathy.

This film has a greater sense and a greater care for humanity than Shyamalan has expressed in a while. He's focused but narrowly focused in his empathy, which makes the movie problematic in certain ways, but it does give this movie a kind of heartbeat that I haven't really felt from Shyamalan since Unbreakable. This makes some kind of logic, given that this movie in some regard takes place in the same universe as Unbreakable and in another regard sets up a sequel for that second collaboration Shyamalan did with Bruce Willis.

James McAvoy (Atonement and The Last King of Scotland) stars as Kevin, a man who has worked at the Philadelphia Zoo for about ten years. He's currently in counseling where his therapist has diagnosed him with Dissociative Identity Disorder, also known as multiple personalities. His therapist has found that Kevin has 23 personalities, ranging in various ages, genders and sexual orientations.

As an actor, having to portray 23 different personalities can be daunting but exciting. It can be perfectly challenging given that McAvoy has to slip in and out of those personalities live on camera and sell it. There are times when the camera cuts away, and he's allowed to change clothes and let costuming aid his transition. However, a lot of the time, it's just McAvoy's face and shirtless body on screen. His facial expressions and body language are all he has, particularly in one climactic scene, but still McAvoy sells it. He in fact knocks it out the park, and one can tell McAvoy is enjoying the role. He's terrifying. He's tender. He's scary. He's sexy. He's shattered and strong. He's everything and one buys it all. He's bald-headed, probably because he filmed this in or near his filming of X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), but, though a typically manly look, he can use it for androgyny to great effect.

Anya Taylor-Joy (Barry and The Witch) co-stars as Casey Cooke, a teenage girl who's with other girls during a birthday party. She seems a little introverted. She's a bit of an outcast. The other girls are nice to her, but they're not the best of friends. Much of her life isn't known beyond that. Flashbacks reveal that she had a father, played by Sebastian Arcelus (Madam Secretary and House of Cards), and an uncle John, played by Brad William Henke (Lost and Orange is the New Black). Those flashbacks are limited to her hunting trips with her dad and uncle, but that's it.

Betty Buckley (Eight is Enough and Oz) also co-stars as Karen Fletcher, the aforementioned therapist. She's an elderly white woman who is very discerning of Kevin's personalities. She clearly cares for Kevin and wants to help him live a stable life. She also has a theory about D.I.D. that seems fantastical, which she almost wants to study to understand human potential and possibly increasing it. Yet, her chief concern is Kevin's stability and well-being.

The plot involves one of Kevin's personalities kidnapping Casey and her friends. The film doesn't overcome the Oscar-winning Room (2015), which is also about a kidnapped girl being held hostage in a tiny space. It doesn't feel as ridiculous as 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), which is also about a kidnapped girl locked in a small area. There is a bit of ridiculousness that the film leans toward at the end, but mostly it works as a psychological thriller or slight character study.

Shyamalan doesn't really utilize jump-scares or much gore, which separates it from other films to which it might be compared. This is to the film's advantage. It makes the whole production really more about the performances. As such, Shyamalan's camera is often straight on the actor's faces.

Other than being a pit stop on his return to doing another, gritty, comic book-like movie, the takeaway from this film is a bit suspect. I'm not sure if Shyamalan is using sexual abuse or abuse of children in general as just a plot device. The implied catharsis at the end feels a little unearned but it was still more powerful than in a lot of other movies in the past year.


Popular Posts