REVIEW: “Split”

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It’s probably a bit of an understatement to call M. Night Shyamalan’s career one big roller coaster ride. I’m actually far more fascinating by the mass reactions from moviegoers who treat him like a true auteur who has fallen from cinematic grace. I think that’s giving Shyamalan a tad too much credit. “The Sixth Sense” is really good. “Unbreakable” is superb. I’m a big fan of “Signs”. These are three solid movies with a certain cultural standing, but they are hardly great enough to make his subsequent decline so fiercely noteworthy.

Still there is no denying that the quality of Shyamalan’s movies fell like a ton of bricks. And I will freely admit that getting the taste of “Lady in the Water”, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” out of your mouth is next to impossible. For many people hope returned with 2015’s “The Visit”, a movie I had a lot of fun with. But for those unwilling to entertain the idea that Shyamalan’s career was back on the upswing, let’s just say “Split”  just might change your mind.

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For the most part the trailer sets up the entire premise. Three teenaged girls are kidnapped while leaving a birthday party. There abductor is Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy), a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. We learn through his sessions with his psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (played by Betty Buckley) that Kevin possesses 23 unique personalities. Collectively they refer to themselves as The Horde.

While held captive the three girls encounter several of Kevin’s identities including the creepy  “Dennis” and the creepier “Patricia”. But they also meet gentler personalities from within Kevin’s mind, a sign of the intense internal conflict going on inside of him. McAvoy dives into his role head-first and shows off how crafty he can be when let off his leash. He is one of the film’s biggest strengths and it’s mind-boggling watching him bring out personality in each of the identities. It may be through accents, mannerisms, or even the slightest facial expression. Incredibly he makes each of them easily recognizable without any blatantly obvious markers.

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Of the three girls, Casey proves to be the more resilient. She’s cool-headed and observant – qualities learned from her deeply troubled past which Shyamalan feeds to us through a smattering of flashbacks. Casey is wonderfully played by Anya Taylor-Joy who gave an equally strong performance in last year’s “The Witch”. Performance-wise her fellow captives don’t fair as well. In their defense Shyamalan hands them some of the movie’s worst dialogue before leaving them locked up and in their underwear for the entire second half of the movie. Aren’t we tired of that yet?

Shyamalan leans heavily on scenes between Dr. Fletcher and one of Kevin’s more amiable personalities “Barry”. There is a psychological cat-and-mouse element to their sessions which is compelling. Shyamalan may lean on them a tad too much, but that’s not to say the scenes are without meaning. Also they allow for some of McAvoy’s best work. Through these scenes (and for that matter the entire film) Shyamalan maintains his sharp instincts for suspense and his skills with the camera are as good as ever.

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Then you have the finale. You’ll find no spoilers here and do yourself a favor – avoid them at all costs. Shyamalan has an impressive knack for causing you to immediately reevaluate his film after seeing its ending. It has never been more true than with “Split”. Shyamalan twists are a signature of his movies but prior to “The Visit” you could say he had become a parody of himself. “Split” proves he can still completely broadside any audience.

Shyamalan once again shows he is still a filmmaker worth paying attention to. “Split” is a movie with a few problems, some of which were easily avoidable. At the same time James McAvoy gives a stand-out performance and Anya Taylor-Joy continues to show she is the real deal. But most importantly Shyamalan sticks his ending with an insanely clever twist I never saw coming and that immediately compelled me to see the film again. Rarely has a conclusion surprised or impressed me quite like this. See it for yourself.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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39 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Split”

  1. Loved your review Keith but I did not much care for the ending. I thought it was very close to wrecking the whole thing, but here we are once again with the division. Shyamalan is really good at that, as well. Audiences either feel elated and fulfilled or betrayed and dissatisfied. Thought Split was 90% a great ride

    • Really? That’s such an interesting reaction to me. Don’t misunderstand, I’m in no way delegitimizing your take on it. I was blown away with what MNS did and how he pulled it off. When I went back a second time with a new perspective I found the film to be even better. But as you said Shyamalan is really good at getting varied reactions.

      • Here’s where I am on it (and this might be a spoiler-loaded comment so heads up anyone reading this):

        1) the movie does a great job staying within the realm of realism for 80-something minutes. the science of psychology is relied upon in a way that’s convincing (even if Betty Buckley’s explanations of past clients really stretched the definition of believable) and McAvoy sold us so completely on his illness. The 24th personality turned the thing from a study of mental illness into completely trivializing it and honestly that was a major problem for me.

        2) the shifting tonality of the film’s second half was also problematic. I began to get annoyed at the kids in my screening who kept laughing at McAvoy’s nine-year-old Hedgwig. There were so many times where laughter was appropriate and then there were those that weren’t, and yet it was clear Shyamalan didn’t seem to want to make the distinction and the ending bit was probably what caused me to laugh the most. The Beast is some kind of fantastical creation from some forgotten script he probably tried to shoot but it never saw the light of day

        3) Shyamalan’s piggy-backing on the success of the Avengers is absolutely shameless. Or you could argue he’s taking some of his movies in the direction of Suicide Squad, where he’s going to assemble all these shadowy creatures for a team-up mission of some kind. Either way, way to sell out dude.

        4) The ending dramatics were so completely predictable which irritated me further. I knew that once the personality that was “about to emerge” actually emerged, it would be something A) demonic or B) supernatural. To my very un-surprise, the final denouement stemmed from Kevin’s past trauma and his ability to recognize Casey’s scarred past was interesting but I thought really clumsily executed.

        All of this basically left me feeling that Shyamalan is a great director for teens, and that he has never let his childish hopes and dreams get away from him, but as a director he needs to grow up. That’s just me though. I am pretty much right there with you though in thinking that Shyamalan wasn’t exactly the world’s finest director before he started nosediving. So when everyone starts lumping all this praise on him for Split, a movie that gave me more laughs than chills, I kind of start to get confused.

      • SPOILERS here as well…

        I love diving in to your perspectives. Here are just a few thoughts:
        1) I guess it never trivialized it for me because I never responded to the reality side of it. I mean you’re right, there is a real psychology-based conflict MNS is exploring. But at the same time I was always viewing this as equal part fantasy mainly because of Betty Buckley’s explanations. Perhaps if I had bought into it more as a reality-based thriller I would’ve had the same issue.
        2) It’s weird, I never noticed a dramatic shift in tone. I actually complemented its steady growing tension to a friend of mine. I do agree the Beast is fantastical but again since I felt the movie was part fantasy it didn’t really stand out to me.
        3) This is the one point I probably disagree with the most. I don’t think MNS is piggy-backing or selling out at all. Actually the Kevin character was originally written for Unbreakable. MNS pulled him out for balancing issues. But he was always part of the Unbreakable universe (for lack of a better term) well before the Avengers hit the screen. I have no knowledge of his plans, but I would be really surprised if this expanded beyond Unbreakable. Maybe a trilogy which I think would be amazing. Unbreakable was a superhero origin story. This is a supervillain origin story. I can see one more film summing it all up nicely.
        4) Yep, predictability can be a killer. I never fully caught on mainly because I was expecting the patented Shyamalan twist. Maybe that shielded me a bit from his clumsiness.

        But good discussion. I always appreciate hearing different takes especially from those I really respect. It always gives me something to chew one especially once I see the movie again.

  2. I’ll probably watch this on TV just to give it a shot although I will say that After Earth wasn’t his fault into why it sucked. The fault lies in Will Smith and his no-talent ass-clown of his spoiled little shit of a son.

    • After Earth was horrendous. This is definitely no After Earth. If you get a chance I would say see it in the theaters. Don’t even risk having the end spoiled for you.

  3. So glad to see you enjoyed this one as much as I did. Ever since The Happening, I’ve been rooting for Shyamalan to make a comeback, and with Split, I would say he finally has. Let’s hope he can maintain this streak, and hopefully give us something as powerful as Signs again some day!

  4. I always thought the twist for Signs is a little silly. But I agree with everything else you wrote! 🙂 Split is genuinely well-executed, as compared to the average abduction thriller, even if predictable. And the ending works well, adding layers to a story that could have been rather ordinary.

    • Thanks for reading! I went and saw this a second time which strengthened my opinion of it and made me feel a little better about my initial problems with it. And that ending…ohhh that ending! I left exhilarated.

  5. You know reading your review made me think if the movie wouldn’t actually be better if there were no 2 other girls, just Casey and the guy. I thought it was good but the two main performances, the ending and the score really overshadowed the rest.

    I love Unbreakable and The Village – I think that movie was a total victim of false marketing, they tried selling it as horror but it was actually a romance. That twist in the end was not necessary but the movie itself, especially the cast and the cinematography along with the music were outstanding.

  6. Sounds good, bro. I’m more eager to see what McAvoy does here. I think he’s a very versatile actor and sometimes doesn’t get enough praise for how powerful he can be.

    • Bro, Shyamalan let’s him off the leash in this one. It’s crazy how good he is. I have 100% agree with you, he isn’t given the attention he deserves considering the immense talent he has as an actor. As for the movie… let’s just say I hope you see it before anything is spoiled.

  7. I share thoughts with Tom. Loved it, until the ending. I just wish it would stand on its own, but part of me respects that M Night was able to achieve his vision from years and years ago with this universe.

    I just don’t think I have any interest to revisit again, sadly.

    • Interesting. I had such an opposite reaction. The epilogue actually saved it for me. Once I realized what he pulled off I saw the film in an entirely different light and it actually fixed some of the problems I had with it. For me the second viewing was even better with the ending in mind.

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