Remember how M. Night Shyamalan was hotly tipped to be one of the top directors of our generation after a string of critically acclaimed films? That was quickly followed up by a marathon of abysmal projects; most noticeably The Last Airbender and After Earth. Then he seemed to be on the road to a comeback with the release of his decent horror flick in 2015, The Visit. And now, with his latest film Split, I am silently cheering on about how we don’t live in an alternate dystopian universe where M Night Shyamalan is one of the greatest, if not the greatest filmmaker currently working. Because Split is quite frankly mediocre at its best and a rage inducing, convoluted mess at its worst.
After a birthday party, Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy) is just minding her own business when she is offered a ride home by her classmate Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) dad. Claire’s friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) tags along. As they are about to drive off, Claire’s dad is attacked by a man named Kevin who is suffering from dissociative identity disorder. ‘Dennis’, the personality who is in charge of Kevin’s body during the attack, kidnaps the three girls and locks them up in a windowless basement. Dennis who inhabits 22 other personalities inside of him, preaches to them about how they are kept as food for the arrival of the 24th personality, ‘The Beast’. The trio must find a way out before the coming of this malicious personality.
As far as performances go, James McAvoy saves the film with an incredible showcase of the many prominent personalities (there are altogether 24 personalities, but he plays about 5 of them in the movie). One will be able to easily discern the identities from each other every time someone takes over the other because of the different cognitive attributes or facial expressions McAvoy had for them. And that was what made him so great in this film; he was able to distinctly differentiate each character from the next and that itself made his character terrifyingly volatile.
Meanwhile, the behaviour of Anya Taylor-Joy’s character Casey is pretty bewildering for someone who just got kidnapped. While the two other girls who are with her are either screaming their lungs out or trying to hatch a plan to escape, all Anya does is stare into blank space and speak in a strangely calm voice. It is as though she was the one who planned the kidnapping. She does show that she is worthy of being called one of the most exciting young talents in Hollywood but not in any scene which will blow us away.
This is definitely one of Shyamalan’s better looking films. That credit goes to Mike Gioulakis who Shyamalan enlisted for the cinematography work in Split after seeing the movie It Follows which Gioulakis worked on. The upgrade in the practical camera work is evident with the tightly shot angles which portray the claustrophobic, seemingly inescapable setting the girls are trapped in and the numerous close up shots of the characters’ faces which aim to make the audience uncomfortable.
The humour Shyamalan tries to incorporate in Split is dry for the most part. It is mostly limited to forced facial expressions of disbelief when the three girls are stunned to witness a different personality in Kevin.
The films Shyamalan made during the early days of his career quickly established his cinematic style to movie-goers, particularly his undeniable love for the surprise ending. So naturally, one would expect the ending scene to be kick-ass and just flat out take us by surprise. Right?
Wrong. I am let down by the fact that the trademark ‘twist ending’ which Shyamalan has built his brand of films on is one which is severely lacking in the shock department in Split. It is ironical because while some may draw the link instantly, I’m predicting that it will fly over our heads for the most of us. Without spoiling too much, to fully understand the twist of Split will require some knowledge of his previous films. The ending is underwhelming without that critical information.
In the end, Split is an impatient journey in waiting for things to happen. It has a pretentious script which struggles to be something it is not. A half-hearted attempt at a horror-thriller which Shyamalan tries to shove down our throats – even the score forces the horror theme on us and it doesn’t work out at all because of how unfitting the music was for the scenes – it didn’t make the story tense, only more frustrating.
Should you spend money on it? No
Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs)
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Running time: 117 minutes