Controversial opinion: SPLIT is M. Night Shyamalan’s second weakest film of his career – and he’s crafted his fair share of terribly limp films. From THE VILLAGE (whose twist seems prescient now), to LADY IN THE WATER (which is glorious in its own right), to THE HAPPENING (with its “completely superfluous bottle of cough syrup” cult status), the auteur’s resume is filled with potholes. But never before has a film been so wrong-headed in its narrative approach, creation, and purpose than with SPLIT. He dresses up the subpar story in fancy duds, shrouding it in thick atmosphere courtesy of his collaborative crew, but his PYGMALION-esque act is very obvious. That said, this serves more as a ringing endorsement for James McAvoy’s mad (pun intended) skills.
Don’t worry. I’ll keep the plot to the bare minimum. Essentially, three high schoolers – spoiled Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), popular Marcia (Jessica Sula, who’s an incredible find) and withdrawn loser Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped by a mysterious, unhinged man (McAvoy, who does incredible work here altering every inch of his physicality to a DNA level) harboring twenty-three personalities in his body. The young ladies are forced to use every resource they can to escape before malevolence descends.
Let’s get this out of the way. SPLIT is very insensitive towards those suffering from mental illness, further stigmatizing the disease rather than helping to de-stigmatize it. Same goes for victims of abuse. He may cloak his unhealthy attitude in celebratory garb, calling survivors extraordinary and placing them in a place of power, but it’s a paper-thin veil. We see right through it. His trademarked (and expected) twist also doesn’t help. It may add context and clarity, but more so, does a disservice to two marginalized communities of those who need our empathy and compassion now more than ever.
Personally, I’ve had enough of seeing helpless young women put into peril for the sake of drama. It’s a narrative I’d like to see die a quick death. Take THE DESCENT for example – another film with women pursued by pure evil in a claustrophobic space. This film resides on the opposite end of the spectrum – where Night should have crafted this. There, tension is taut because it’s unrelenting, never cutting away from the women’s desperate drive to get out of that subterranean cave. In SPLIT, the scale is tipped severely. The ladies’ tribulations exclusively function to aid the male protagonist’s arc. Not only does that feel tangibly regressive, Night doesn’t really do anything with the final girl horror movie trope. Well, he does, it’s just that instead of it being the subversive choice he thinks this is, upending the audience’s expectations, he fails to really stick the landing, leading to punishing the heroine further. Though he resists doing it verbally, you can almost hear him explaining it to you. His reasoning isn’t good – it’s maddeningly wrong, enslaving, and not an act of feminist defiance. It’s disheartening, disturbing and depressing.
Can you believe I haven’t even gotten to the real reason why none of this really works yet? Neither can I.
The main reason why this doesn’t work is that it’s all so blasé. Yes, there’s a tiny uptick at the very end (that may trick some into thinking what they just saw was a good film because it ends on a more satisfying tag), but it’s not the necessary jolt to revive a dead corpse. Night may have used the top talent in the business when building his foundation, like DP Mike Gioulakis (IT FOLLOWS), production designer Mara LePere-Schloop (TRUE DETECTIVE), composer West Dylan Thordson (THE JINX) and costume designer Paco Delgado (THE SKIN I LIVE IN, THE DANISH GIRL). However, it doesn’t add up to a riveting or engaging film if the story isn’t strong enough to match the visual artistry.
All style and little substance isn’t the split to bet on.
1.5 out of 5
SPLIT played AFI Fest on November 15. It opens on January 20, 2017.