M. Night Shyamalan’s Split has been getting a lot of positive buzz since it originally premiered for a small group of critics back in late November, early December of last year. Not actually being released until this weekend, I was there on opening day with ticket in hand to partake of Mr. Shyamalan’s comeback film. Some considered The Visit to be his first comeback film. The film was a decent film about kids visiting their grandparents for the first time, only to find that their grandparents are acting very strange and becoming more dangerous. I liked the film to a point, but ultimately found it unsatisfying. It was hokey, corny and unrealistic, despite some good performances. With Split this was supposed to be it; the film that returned M. Night Shyamalan to greatness that he once had.
With The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, Mr. Shyamalan rocketed to fame. Then came tumbling down to earth of four films, each worse than the previous disaster. While Split has a lot of great elements, sadly for me, it was not what I was expecting. James MacAvoy is Kevin, a man who has twenty-three different personalities. Some are good but most are evil and cruel. Actually, it does not really matter what they are, because he loses all sympathy from me when he kidnaps three high school girls from a birthday party. I don’t care what the ailment is, kidnapping tends to negate any excuses.
The three girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Any Taylor-Joy) are thrown into a room while they wait to see what Kevin has in store for them. “The Beast is coming”, he says with a sneer. The girls make attempts to escape only to end up separated and worse off than if they had stuck together. We then have Kevin meeting with his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as he snows her with, “Everything is great, Doc. Hey, look I have done some sketches of a line of clothes I want to design.” The good doctor placates him but, after a while begins to suspect not all is well with her patient.
That is all I will say about the plot. I have a feeling most people will like this film and to be honest, there is a lot I did like about Split. The acting is superb, especially by MacAvoy. He is simply one of the best actors working today. He is able to get outside of himself, shed all inhibitions and create a character, unlike anything we may have seen. There are some scenes in which he is downright terrifying others where I chuckled with a certain amount of nervousness. Was it supposed to be funny? I have no idea, but there are some humorous moments. The problem I had was how serious the condition that plagues Kevin is, but how is dangerous nature seems to be glossed over. He supposedly has been “problem free” for ten years. Really? When you see what he is capable of, I doubt he has kept himself clean for that long. The good doctor is so impressed with his “progress” that she is invited to have a Skype conference with fellow therapists in England.
It just seems the condition of Kevin exists as a gimmick and not much more. One scene they discuss real dimensions of his illness as doctors trying to honestly help him and the next he is off doing something horrific. You can’t have it both ways. Either he is someone that is too dangerous and needs to be locked up, or he is innocuous and needs a little TLC. Then the film’s climax kicks in and it gets a little ridiculous. Once you see Split you will be able to make up your mind. Still, Anya Taylor-Joy is terrific as Casey, a bad girl who is not really bad, just lonely, unhappy and scarred. So far she has only made four films but she is a revelation. I even like the performances of Haley Lu Richardson and Marcia Sula. They were both very solid in their supporting roles. I connected and care about what happened to them in Split, where in other films these same types of characters are underdeveloped so we end up not caring one way or another. Film score composer West Dylan Thordson is a newcomer and his score for Split it terrific. It is a well-balanced score bridging the sanity with madness as we see Kevin change from one personality to another.
I don’t know what kinds of dark places James MacAvoy had to dig into to reach for this kind of performance. It is truly amazing, shocking and ghastly. Kevin and Casey play off of each other well, but every time they get some interesting dialogue the film cuts away to Casey as a little girl hunting with her father and uncle. It never really pays off in the film and Split’s pacing slows down whenever Shyamalan cuts to these scenes. Split is shot well by cinematographer Michael Gioulakis and he and Shyamalan do a great job of creating a mood and tone for Split. But the editing is choppy and Shyamalan’s script is earnest enough but unfocused. He stuffs too much extra material into Split when he has all he really needs with his four main characters.
In any case, Split is better than The Visit and is, in fact, his best film since The Last Airbender from 2010. He is getting back to making films that he knows that he can make. Scrape the big budget, effects laden nonsense. Keep it small and simple. There is a big tie in with another of Shyamalan’s film and a special cameo by a big star all at the end of the film so stick with it. This is NOT a post credit sequence but essential to any further films with these characters. That is all I will say about that. Anymore and I will ruin it for you. But with Split, he seems to be reaching when he does not need to. I really wanted to like this film a lot more than I did and I have a feeling most people will go and like this film more than I did. If you do, great. But Split is all over the place, tries too hard, takes itself too seriously and ends up being a bit silly. We have had enough silliness from Shyamalan’s last four films.
Split – **3/4 out of five
Split – Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, gore and language
Split – Run Time is 117 minutes
Split is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations.