Running Time: 117 mins
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Haley Lu Richardson, Brad William Henke
(Dublin Rd Cinema, 21/01/2017)
Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities, and must try and escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.
The broken are the more evolved.
“Does the end justify the means?” is a phrase I’m rather fond of. It’s an essential question and one that every human being should have cause to ask themselves at some point in their lives. It is a phrase that is particularly apposite for M Night Shyamalan’s latest and one that rattles in my brain as I think about just how to review Split. You see, Split is really two movies. Actually Split is three movies if you’ve never seen an M Night Shyamalan movie before because Shyamalan movies come with certain baggage. That baggage is the twist ending.
Ask yourself this, as an audience member, if you know there’s a twist coming before you enter the theatre (because you’re going to see a movie from a guy who does twist endings… a lot!), what are you looking for the entire time you’re watching the movie? You’re looking for the twist, right? You’re looking to be the smartest person in the theatre before anyone else, yes? It’s a frustrating experience, for this reviewer anyway because I carry that baggage. Except here’s a twist I don’t mind giving away, Shyamalan knows about this baggage but you don’t know he knows this until the very end of the movie. It’s kind of meta. It’s also kind of why the movie is both kind of genius and kind of frustrating.
Shyamalan’s best movie by a country mile is Unbreakable (no, not The Sixth Sense, not in a million years) because the twist at the end of that movie was more of a bonus: a mildly superfluous addition to what was essentially a very grounded super-hero origins story. It’s the only Shyamalan movie I’ve had the desire to revisit because the other films are frankly one trick ponies. Split doesn’t quite fall into the one trick pony category but it comes close.
Split is a very claustrophobic experience and there is genuine, edge of your seat tension to be had throughout the film’s nearly two hour run time but you are constantly aware that a twist is coming. Because Shyamalan! The set up for it is there but it doesn’t pay off until it kind of does but it doesn’t…confused?
Not as confused as “Dennis”, one of 23 split personalities played by James McAvoy (although as McAvoy pointed out on Graham Norton, you only see about 9 of them) who kidnaps three teenage girls. You slowly find out that although Dennis has a predilection for young girls and also violence, the girls are there to serve a more sinister purpose: The emergence of a 24th personality.
It’s very effective and creepy and McAvoy delivers a real tour de force performance but there is also something different about one of his teenage captives, Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy). From the outset, we see that she’s an outsider and not friendly with the other two captive girls. We also see flashbacks of her younger self with her father and uncle. Does she share something in common with her captor? Is her past somehow tied to her current predicament? Why does she wear so many layers of clothes? Does my job as a reviewer require me to misdirect you, the reader, because this is a movie that is tied to an ending that you just won’t see coming?
Taken on it’s own, Split is an effective psychological horror thriller but the problem is you also can’t take this movie on its own. At one point in the movie Betty Buckley’s psychologist (who treats McAvoy’s characters) expounds on her theory that people with dissociative identity disorder (DID) somehow have a window into the supernatural realm, that the human mind is far more powerful than we know. It’s unintentionally funny and not really in keeping with the grounded and scary premise of a mentally unwell person holding captive three young girls. It’s something that would seem more in keeping with the claptrap you find in a comic book movie but, and it’s a big but, her little spiel actually makes sense by the end of the movie.
This is a frustrating movie to review because it’s a very effective movie when it wants to be. Shyamalan is a very skilled director and the comparisons to Spielberg early in his career are partially justified because he’s knows how to play an audience. He knows just what to show you and when to show it and if you can do that, you know how to keep a person on the edge of their seat. Split is littered with moments like these and the final third is incredibly tense and also pretty silly…until you get to the end of the movie. And it’s straight up jaw dropping. IF…you carry the Shyamalan baggage.
The ending of Split, for some won’t really click, but it did for me and it was pretty cool I must admit. However, this is ultimately a 3 star movie with a 5 star ending but what I ask myself is, does the end justify the means? And I don’t honestly know how to answer that because that’s a whole lotta road to get through for that ending.
Split is a clever self-reflexive trick on audience expectations that is frustrating until you realise what the director is doing but it makes it less of a movie in that it still feels like a one off experience. It’s also a tense psychological horror with a brilliant performance from James McAvoy but compared to Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s best film, it’s not as memorable or as visually arresting but it does have an ending that you simply won’t see coming. But bring the baggage. It’s frustrating but you’ll need it. Because that ending is unforeseeable.