Movie Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split”

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It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for M. Night Shyamalan to return to form, back when he was delighting us with movies like “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.” His new film “Split” is as good as we’ve seen him. He’s eschewed some of the big-budget special effects of some of his more recent films, and instead, focused on writing a taut, suspenseful horror-thriller.

If you don’t already know the basic storyline from the movie trailer, it’s basically this: a deranged man (played by James McAvoy) suffering from multiple personality disorder abducts three teenage girls, and subjects them to various torments as he struggles with his 23 different personalities.

The problem, of course, is that there’s one more personality that has not yet fully surfaced, and when it does, it will seek to dominate all 23 of his other personalities. It’s safe to say that this 24th personality is going to be the most dangerous one, certainly more so than some of the other personalities – an LGBT fashion designer, a deranged church lady, a 9-year-old child and a clean freak.

In many ways, “Split” marks a split from other films – like “Psycho” or “Dressed to Kill” – that used the existence of a hidden personality as a major plot twist. Indeed, from the very outset, we’re told that “Kevin” has 23 different personalities vying for control. On a regular basis, he visits his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley), who has a chance to explain to both Kevin and the audience what the heck is going on here.

Unlike other people suffering from multiple personality disorder, Kevin actually has a rare and dangerous form of it known as dissociative identity disorder, which means that he assumes the specific physical attributes for each personality.

That leads to a star tour de force role for James McAvoy, who is absolutely brilliant in being able to use his body language, his facial expressions and even his accents and dialects to show viewers which personality he’s currently experiencing. (Oh, and don’t forget the tiger-like teeth!) The unique aspect of his disorder is that only one can “come out to play” at a time. Thus, we see McAvoy transforming himself almost effortlessly into a mix of different “alters,” all of them are, presumably, almost an entirely different person with different physical and mental attributes.

Since this is a Shyamalan film, you know there are going to be plot twists and subtle turns in the narrative. And it’s here that the director is a master of mood, pacing and perspective, showing us just enough to hint at what might come next, but keeping enough out of view to keep us grasping for more. We’re like the three teenage girls, held behind a dungeon-like door, and only able to see bits and pieces of all the craziness happening around them at any time.

In many ways, though, Shyamalan may be trying too hard to keep us on the edge of our seats. At times, what happens is just preposterous, and there’s no way to put it any other way. And some of the characterizations from McAvoy are so overwrought and over-the-top that we wonder if Shyamalan is toying with us, letting us know that he knows exactly what we must be thinking about his films.

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While it’s hard to argue with the prodigious artistic output of M. Night Shyamalan – “The Sixth Sense, “Unbreakable,” “Signs, “The Happening,” “The Village,” “Lady in the Lake” – it’s also clear that he’s never going to achieve his enormous promise of a decade ago. Remember when Newsweek anointed him as “the next Spielberg”?

Unfortunately, there’s a lot in “Split” that’s derivative of many of the top horror franchises today. “Saw” comes to mind, because that film also features the story of someone who wakes up in an unrecognized chamber of horrors, confronting a villain of unimagined evil. But, to Shyamalan’s credit, his film is literally a PG-13 take on the “R” horror film genre. The film is not especially bloody, gruesome or horrible, even if it is sinister and more than a little creepy. You will be creeped out, but not grossed out. And, certainly, the abuse of children theme is something that maybe we’d rather not see on camera, even if it’s something certain to add a layer of creepiness to the film.

While a lot of credit for the box office success of the film has to go to the name brand recognition of M. Night Shyamalan and the main star, James McAvoy, credit also has to go Betty Buckley, who’s a key part of making sense of the plot, as well as the three girls – Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula – who are abducted by McAvoy’s character.

Of these, Anya Taylor-Joy is deserving of especial notice. Other critics have described her as a “brooding outsider”, and that’s a good description of her. She’s really the key to the three girls making sense of their situation and escaping. As it turns out, though, she’s more than a little bit damaged herself. She’s carrying a lot of emotional baggage, in the form of some childhood traumas that she would rather not relive.

Ultimately, “Split” is a worthy take on the psycho-slasher movie, if only because the “psycho” element is so clearly announced up front (and the title of the film should tell you as much, as well). It is, as Variety has suggested, “an unhinged new mind bender.” We know the plot twists are coming, but we are still largely powerless to predict them (although more than a few “Split” fans have said that it’s possible to piece together a number of clues that prepared them for the film’s final “blow your mind” plot twist.)

Hollywood’s horror-thriller has been in need of a reboot, after the whole “Saw” genre gave it a boost for so long. And so this is what we could be looking forward to – films that focus more on star power and PG-13-level terror.

We won’t be seeing a “Split, Part 2” yet but the film clearly aims to be taken seriously. It was released under the Universal Blumhouse label, which is the same label that gave us “Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity” and “The Purge.” The film “Split” may have split personalities of its own at times, but it’s certainly a compelling two-hour romp through the mind of a lunatic.

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