When first seeing the trailer for Split, I was all hyped. Not only am I a fan of thrillers, but also of James McAvoy. Then the cruel reality dawned on me that it was yet another film from the once-heralded M Night Shyamalan and my enthusiasm (and hopes) died like most of the storylines of his movies. The end result was that the bar wasn't set particularly high going into the screening, but once it started – it occurred to me I might have stumbled across the rarest of cinematic creatures – a decent Shyamalan film.
Just so that I'm perfectly clear, this is not a great movie – it has problems, and we'll touch on those soon enough. It has a serviceable story, some solid performances, and it doesn't too badly reek of Shyamalan trying to convince us he's as clever as he thinks he is.
Kevin (played by McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. He is compelled by some of those to abduct three teenage girls – Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), Claire, played by Haley Lu Richardson (Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia, played by Jessica Sula (Skins). As they try to defend themselves and find a way to escape, Kevin visits them while different personalities are in the light (meaning they have control of his body at the time). The two main controlling personalities are "Dennis" an OCD-driven controlling personality that is exacting and methodical, and "Patricia", who is the main brains behind the kidnapping.
Initially it seems that they were taken to serve Dennis's sexual desire to have young girls dance naked for him. But then Patricia chides him to not touch or molest the girls, instead it's revealed at they have been kidnapped to serve as food for an entity that Kevin only describes as "The Beast", which Fletcher believes to be an as-of-yet un-manifested 24th personality.
As thrillers go, it's not a bad concept, and with the creepiness that McAvoy is able to exude as he jumps from being a young boy to middle aged woman to many of his other personalities in the blink of an eye. It's a solid master class of presenting varying characters, often with just a slight adjustment in expression. The challenge of the movie is that regardless of his many failed movies, he still tries to have a twist in the story somewhere or another, since he still seems to think he can pull some switch-of-hand on the audience. We're used to his tricks at this point, and likely have simply evolved as an audience, so there's really no particular surprises in where things are going as the film unfolds. This isn't a bad thing necessarily, but there's no real shocking surprises which one would hope for in a thriller. The main questions for the audience is around "what is the beast, exactly?" and will any/all of the girls escape?
While thrillers are supposed to be thrilling, shocking, or scary, the film's main flaw relates to the audience being made uncomfortable without having a good reason for it. Through the course of the film, of the three girls, Casey, appears to be more accepting of the control Kevin has over her than the other two girls. Through a series of flashbacks we discover that she has grown up being molested by an uncle from before the age of 10, and when she had the opportunity to deal with him, she chose not to. It's awkward because that side thread didn't need to be in there, at least not the flashbacks. The girls have plenty of time to talk to each other, and between Casey and Kevin to have had time to establish that she had a very damaged upbringing. Beyond the abuse, some of her actions in the final act of the film negate pieces of information given to the audience about her in the flashbacks, which just makes it all the more feeling like it was added to the script during a cleanup and never gone back over and really thought about.
The other elephant in the room is the depiction of Kevin in general, as an individual suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder being shown as a criminal and abuser of women. Additionally because one of the personalities is a women (and dresses as such when it's in control), it's bringing up the Silence of the Lambs complaints on using a trans-individual as a plot device. For myself, if that logic is taken to the n'th degree one couldn't ever have any thrillers, horror films, or crime dramas because the antagonist could always be considered within a segment of the population. Rather by definition, anyone who kidnaps/kills/rapes/tortures/or does any other similar crime to another has one form of mental illness or another, so that would put a bit of a dampener on the ability to have these types of stories at all. However that said, and caveating that the opinion is my own, the question should be applied to – was the character trait legitimately needed for the purpose of the storyline, or was it simply exploitative and/or gratuitous?
In the case of Split, I'm fine with his multiple personalities, as Shyamalan goes off towards the metaphysical realms and so needed the concept of the various personalities not only existing within his mind, but also to be able to manifest them physically. So that works for me. What didn't work was the story being repeatedly sidetracked off to deal with Casey's lifelong molestation – that could have been handled either from another angle, or with a shorthand that would have also kept the main narrative flowing better.
Overall, I enjoyed it. It may have been in part from sheer shock that it was so much better than The Visit and After Earth (really anything after 2002's Signs has been just the type of outgassing that one might expect from a low-tier film school graduate student) that anything would seem good. Well, it's pulled out of that nosedive at least, and it's above the treetops, albeit not by a great deal. What he does next will have to say whether this was a return towards his earlier works, or just an upwards fluke before he crashes and burns for good.