By Elford Alley. Is it appropriate to depict a character struggling with Dissociative Identity Disorder in a film that juggles multiple tones, most of which are decidedly sinister? Continuing the Shyamalan-aissance at his own peril, M. Night follows The Visit (a damn good B movie if nothing else) and the surprisingly entertaining Wayward Pines with Split, where the oft-maligned filmmaker makes an attempt to answer that very question to mixed results.
The film follows three teenage girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy) who find themselves sharing a cell in a basement prison after being abruptly kidnapped by a man named Dennis (played with glitchy menace by James McAvoy). The film glosses over the usual circular arguments and confessional/bonding moments usually found in scenes with bottled characters, focusing instead on Claire (Richardson) and Marcia (Sula), who are hellbent on escaping, and Casey (Taylor-Joy), who pleads for caution. We don’t know what “Dennis” is capable of, after all.
Anyone who has seen The Witch will not be surprised to hear Anya Taylor-Joy has provided Split with a nuanced performance. Taylor-Joy’s role as a girl haunted by a traumatic past means that we watch her attempt to survive not only Dennis’ basement of horrors, but her own deeply embedded fears. The actor offers glimpses into the terrors of her life, which is enough to unsettle viewers far more than the film’s violence and its rather unflattering take on mental illness. (It’s clear Shyamalan knew this would be a touchy subject and apparently took steps to differentiate McAvoy’s character from people who struggle with mental illness, though whether that worked out will definitely depend on the viewer.)
When Split begins, McAvoy plays the type of buttoned-up, Type-A serial killer we’ve often seen in stories such as these, before seamlessly transitioning into several other characters (including the film’s comic relief, a nine-year-old Kanye-loving child who’s only too eager to show off his dance moves). His characters are at times played for laughs, but as the film progresses McAvoy’s performance becomes more and more grim until we’re finally greeted with the Dennis’ dreaded 24th personality: The Beast.
Much of the comedy isn’t designed to lull the audience into a false sense of complacency so much as it’s there simply for mean-spirited guffaws. The first time we see McAvoy in a dress as the calm, matronly Patricia, the audience laughed. By the end of the film, Patricia’s appearances become more and more unsettling, and yet the audience was still chortling. (It shouldn’t have to be said that Shyamalan’s approach to transgender identity is equally troublesome.)
The film’s primary attraction of horrific scares and violence are shelved until the last 30 minutes, when we’re greeted with a surprising level of brutality for a Shyamalan film. (Or, for that matter, a PG-13 one.) It would seem that Split is a film where M. Night appears ready to cut loose. On what, exactly? That, fittingly enough, remains a mystery.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, and Marc Bienstock.
Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Betty Buckley.
Rated PG-13 because the ratings system is broken.
5.5 out of 10