Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Distributed by Universal Pictures
OOOOOOH MY GOD! M. NIGHT SHAYAMALAN MADE A GOOD MOVIE! THE SEVENTH SEAL HAS BEEN BROKEN! CRACK OPEN THE DOORS TO VALHALLA; THE ICE GIANTS MARCH FORTH FOR RAGNAROCK HAS COME! SEAL CLOSED YOUR SHELTERS… THE HEAT DEATH OF THE UNIVERSE IS UPON US! PROTECT YOUR VIRGINS AND MOST DELICIOUS YOUNG; THEY ARE YOUR CURRENCY NOW! And so on and so forth.
I’m more than slightly annoyed that all the discourse around Split is overshadowed by the communal shock and wonder that M. Night Shayamalan, fallen angel of the film world, has managed to make a good film after so many flops. Literally the only thing I knew about Split going in was that it was “good” instead of “bad,” and wasn’t that craaaaaazy!?!? Everyone seems to have their own theories on why this film worked, how his directorial style requires more focus or that he was humbled by his many failures, and I’m sure even some of them have merit. It’s just annoying that the context of Split overshadows the actual film.
Did everyone forget that The Visit was pretty good? Or that “Wayward Pines,” the show he directed and produced, was awesome? I’d also be more keen to talk about him if I didn’t feel like the movie should have been titled ”The James McAvoy One Man Show!” Some of the more auteur aspects I feel brought the movie down. I get the symbolism of The Beast living in a zoo, but wasn’t he born in a train station? Way to mix your metaphors.
All right, rant over. I’m probably the last person on earth to see Split, but in case you’re broke like me and can’t go see movies, here’s the premise: James McAvoy plays a mentally ill man named Kevin, whose personality has “split” into 23 different unique personas. This isn’t your run of the mill mood swings, as each persona is its own character, complete with personality, style, ideas, identity, and even physicality. One of the personalities needs glasses, some are women, one is a child, and another is even diabetic. The way that McAvoy transforms into these characters is truly magnificent and easily steals the show.
Most of the personalities in Kevin are benign, just wanting to live their lives as a group as best they can. They all want to be acknowledged, taken seriously as real beings. The conflict begins when three of Kevin’s personalities usurp the rest in an effort to summon a 24th personality, “The Beast.” To this end the personas Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig kidnap three young girls as an offering. The film doesn’t waste any time: The kidnapping happens in the first five minutes, and from there it’s a struggle to escape.
It’s a fascinating premise that I also feel is a tad dishonest. First off, this isn’t an escape/survival story. The focus is split between Anya Taylor-Joy as the victim Casey, James McAvoy as Kevin, and Betty Buckley as Kevin’s psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher. Together they tell an origin story for a new villain known as “The Horde.” McAvoy is the clear star here, but Taylor-Joy also gives a fantastic, subtle performance. We learn a lot about her trauma and history through the course of the film. It just sucks that it’s all in the service of revealing more about The Beast. She never has her big transformative moment or even a resolution. She’s a fantastic character but in the end only serves the purpose of further characterizing The Beast.
Betty Buckley’s character similarly exists to give us the scientific theory behind Kevin’s condition. We’re given several scenes where Dr. Fletcher proposes theories on the power of Dissociative Identity Disorder for the sole sake of setting up the transformation into The Beast later in the film. The special features show several cut scenes that further flesh out her character’s motivations, but as it stands she’s just another lens with which to see Kevin’s many personalities. A very compelling and effective lens, but still just a storytelling tool.
I know I’m being a bit harsh on Split, but that’s only because I so thoroughly loved the core of this film. McAvoy as Kevin was truly phenomenal. His range as an actor is mesmerizing, and his ability to switch between characters mid-scene is truly impressive. The whole film is worth seeing just for him. The concept is also the perfect mix of believable and magical. It’s the same feeling that Shyamalan brought to life in Unbreakable. The rules for the world are clear, and by the time the impossible happens, you’re ready to believe it.
That all being said, there are a few issues here and there. There are some weak lines, and the film does overly rely on McAvoy without letting Taylor-Joy really shine. The parts with Buckley are great, but I really wish they had kept in the deleted scenes that fleshed out her character. There are also some stupid character decisions (why hit Patricia with a chair and run away when there are knives all around her?) and a strange reliance on teenage girl boobs. I get that this was in service of rounding out Dennis—and far be it for me to complain about boobs—but it might make your mom uncomfortable.
Split is a film that will take you by surprise even if you know almost everything about it. The life that McAvoy breathes into this character cements it as one of the great horror villains, and the path that Shyamalan sets for him is sure to lead to at least one more film. If you haven’t seen Split yet, do. This is how you do a small idea in a big way.
As for the special features, they kind of suck. I know a few people who were really pumped on the alternate ending, but it’s about 12 seconds long and adds nothing to the character. If you needed to just REALLY know that The Beast is bad and wants to do bad things, then it’ll do that for you. The deleted scenes are far more interesting, giving some insight into Betty Buckley’s character, but they are ultimately also forgettable. The making-of featurette is fine, and the “Many Faces of James McAvoy” segment is actually pretty interesting. By the time you get to “The Filmmaker’s Eye: M. Night Shyamalan,” you’re seeing a lot of repeated footage. There just wasn’t enough behind-the-scenes work put in to make these meager few featurettes. It’ll definitely give you some insight into the filmmaking, but it outlives its runtime.
- Alternate Ending and Deleted Scenes w/ Introduction by M. Night Shyamalan
- The Making of Split
- The Many Faces of James McAvoy
- The Filmmaker’s Eye: M. Night Shyamalan