Apologies for being late with my review of Split but I saw the film right before going on vacation and immediately shut my brain off. But I’m back and its time to dig into this.
I'm going to be blunt and direct: James McAvoy saves this film. If not for his performance this would be another middle of the road M. Night Shyamalan production, something we've grown accustomed to. Since I’m late getting to this review I’ve seen other reviews and audience reactions to this movie and I know I’m in the minority here. I just wasn’t as enthralled with this movie as everyone else. I think the brilliant performance by McAvoy, taking on a character with so many different personalities, distracts from how mediocre the rest of the film is.
Split is about a man with multiple personalities (McAvoy) that kidnaps three young girls who are meant to be sacrifices for the 24th personality called “The Beast”. McAvoy mostly jumps between three different personalities who have taken control over the rest:
- Dennis - A dominate personality who has OCD and apparently an issue involving attraction to young girls. Believes in The Beast
- Patricia - A mother-figure who is a religious fanatic who believes in The Beast
- Hedwig - A nine year old child like persona that is being used by Denns and Patricia
Dennis kidnaps Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) as sacrifices for The Beast. It’s here that we get our first glimpses of the problems that plague this film. The script and directing just aren’t good enough to handle the two different tracks the film goes down. Its a poorly paced and edited attempt at giving more insight into McAvoy’s character while also trying to explain Casey’s background in vague terms and not give away too much. The problem is, after the first flashback with Casey, you already know what happened to her. Anya Taylor-Joy puts on a great performance but its marred by how poorly and inconsistent her character is written. At first you think Casey might go the route that Sharni Vinson’s character in You’re Next went and rallies to beat off her kidnapper. Then you start piecing together that she won’t because she’s younger and that there’s some underlying issues revolving around what happens in the flashbacks. Problem is, it’s just not written well enough and took me out of the film.
I also had an issue with the over-sexualization of the young female characters that were supposed to be high school girls. I think M Night was trying to elicit a creepiness factor in the film, particularly when McAvoy was playing Dennis but it went beyond just Dennis. Having these girls running around in their underwear and gratuitous shots of cleavage weren't necessary for an attempt at a pay off towards the end of the film.
Everything that focuses on McAvoy’s character though brings you back into the film. The therapy sessions with Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) are riveting. There is an intriguing concept that Dr. Fletcher believes which is that truly understanding how these personalities work on the brain could be the key to unlocking the full potential of the human brain. It's a central theme to the concept of The Beast, who is supposed to be the 24th personality and truly unlocks the brain. While fascinating, in true M. Night fashion it's rarely fleshed out. I understand that some folks enjoy that but I can't help but wonder what someone like Chris Nolan could have done with this kind of concept.
Seeing McAvoy switch between personalities will be enough to satisfy most of the audience. McAvoy takes on the role of playing split personalities and owns in it in a way that has you feel for his character even when he is doing wrong. That’s important in a film like this.
When I first left he theater I said that M. Night “M Nighted" this movie for better or worse. But having thought about it I take that back. Known for his twists, Split is one of the few (maybe the only) films that doesn’t really have a twist. I think the script and story is very simplistic with this film and other than a pointless cameo right at the beginning of the end credits, nothing is really too shocking. The end, like many M. Night movies, falls a bit flat which is disappointing because he stuck the landing with The Visit.
If you grade Split on a curve because of how inconsistent M. Night has been with his movies over the years, I can’t fault you for liking this film. It’s not a bad film and again, McAvoy’s performance is probably worth the price of admission. But let’s be clear, this film is basic on every other level beyond McAvoy’s performance and without him, I think it falls flat.
If you are a MTR Premium member stay tuned. Phenom and I differ in opinions on this movie and there will be a spoiler review put up for premium members where we discuss it.