Movie review: Split loses its identity through a twisted plot

James McAvoy stars in Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller that turns into a monster movie. Universal Pictures James McAvoy stars in Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s psychological thriller that turns into a monster movie. Universal Pictures

Credit where it’s due: that M. Night Shyamalan would even attempt something as utterly unhinged as Split is admirable on some level. The plot you may have gleaned from the one-dimensional marketing—involving a misrepresentation of dissociative identity disorder and possible ’90s-style transphobia—does not even begin to scratch the surface of what Shyamalan is going for here and will be the last thing on the gobsmacked minds of those leaving the theater. This one shoots for the moon, and for that alone it deserves some recognition.

Unfortunately, despite a fabulously bonkers story and unbelievably committed performances, Shyamalan holds back just when he needs to double down, a mistake that proves fatal to the film’s integrity as well as its entertainment value. What good is a post-humanist thriller about awakening the almost-literal demon within if you ease off the gas just when things get interesting. And though the trailers have raised questions about misrepresentation of the mentally ill and a man in women’s clothing as code for “he’s crazy,” it is Split’s failure to commit fully to its own promise that leads to the most offensive fact about it.

Split
PG-13, 117 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

We meet Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she is abducted along with two of her fellow students from a birthday dinner. Casey is something of an outcast, a troubled teen who constantly lashes out and was only invited to the party to avoid social media embarrassment. The abductor is Dennis, or, more accurately, one of many personalities living inside Kevin (James McAvoy). The girls are put in a bunker as the many personalities speak with them—the matronly Patricia, an insecure 9-year-old—all with different mannerisms, skills, areas of expertise and aspirations, not to mention mysterious intentions for their captives.

Meanwhile, Kevin pays regular visits to his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a renowned advocate for people living with DID. He visits in the form of Barry, a gregarious fashion designer. It is in these sessions that we learn more about Kevin’s personalities—collectively known as the horde—and the true purpose of the girls’ abduction, involving a frightening identity known as the beast.

From here, it becomes clear that Shyamalan is not making a psychological thriller. This is a monster movie through and through, with man’s animal nature and desire to transcend the physical and emotional reality of the modern world at its core. This is not wholly new territory for Shyamalan, who often explores the toll of an ordinary person becoming extraordinary as well as withdrawing from the horrors that humans inflict on one another. But it is his most playful with the themes (putting aside the enjoyable yet out-of- character The Visit), with his funniest script to date. Rarely has an actor relished a role with as much skill and joy as McAvoy, who is emotionally and technically remarkable. His ability to convincingly switch identities multiple times in the same shot without uttering a word is stunning, but prolonged scenes with individual identities are just as riveting.

Taylor-Joy is excellent with the role she is given, breathing life into a character who is written as little more than damaged.

And it is here that things begin to fall apart for Split, never to recover; Casey is given a horrifying backstory completely out of line with the film’s themes. The thing you were likely expecting to be upset by in Split pales in comparison with one of the film’s real twists, and is over the top in the wrong way for this sort of story. It is meant as a way to link the beast and Casey, but ends up reducing another prominent female character to the abuse inflicted on her rather than any of her other attributes, while the men remain vital and interesting. Meanwhile, it also pulls you out of the moment and causes you to question some of the glaring inconsistencies you initially forgave due to its endearing audacity.

Shyamalan once again shoots himself in the foot with an intriguing premise that falls apart once challenged. This film is, as they all are, difficult for its reliance on twists, and this write-up will not be the place to find such spoilers. Suffice it to say that the very last one is particularly confounding, and may be a sly dig at the expectations of modern audiences. But this is likely not the case, and we are left with Shyamalan’s own split personality as an artist: the one with big, bold ideas that refuse to remain constrained, and the one with no idea what to do with them.


Playing this week

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

The Bye Bye Man, The Founder, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Live By Night, Moana, Monster Trucks, Passengers, Patriots Day, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Silence, Sing, Sleepless, Underworld: Blood Wars, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

20th Century Women, Fences, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Live by Night, Manchester by the Sea, Passengers, Patriots Day, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Silence, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage

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