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Split (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 20, 2020



SPLIT (2017)

Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson,  Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Robin Rieger and Bruce Willis.

Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan.

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

Distributed by Universal Pictures.  117 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan had finally seemed to have regained his mojo sixteen long years after his stunning breakthrough with The Sixth Sense had devolved into a long string of stinkers (The Village, After Earth, The Last Airbender, The Happening, The Lady in the Water, Signs and more).  The Visit was not perfect, but it was an offbeat and surprisingly funny horror film parody about a couple of kids visiting the grandparents from hell.

This mischievous and occasionally funny thriller tries to continue that film’s arch tone, but sadly for a film with a clinically insane antagonist, the film is kind of batshit crazy, just like its lead character.

The Split in the title is a reference to a split personality.  Multiple-personality disorders as a storyline may seem oh so last century (Sybil, Psycho, Sisters, The Three Faces of Eve, even Fight Club), but Shyamalan approaches the subject with tongue-in-cheek and an irreverent attitude.  This is not going to be a serious look at schizophrenia, he obviously decided early on that this was going to be a geek show deep look at the disease.

James McAvoy plays Barry, a quiet loner who works as a maintenance man at the Philadelphia Zoo.  Barry tries to stay away from people due to his disorder – he has 24 individual personalities living in his head.  For years he has been trying to keep his condition under control with the help of a psychiatric specialist (Betty Buckley), however there has been something of a revolution in his head as three of his personalities are taking control of his mind and body.

Once they gain control, they force him to kidnap three local high school girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson) and trap them in a filthy subterranean dungeon, planning to sacrifice them to a coming all-powerful alpha-personality known only and darkly as the Beast.

In the meantime, in the middle of the night, the other personalities sneak forward to send out warning notes and cries for help to Barry’s increasingly worried doctor.

You’ve got to give McAvoy credit.  It’s a brave, if potentially embarrassing role to take on.  And McAvoy throws himself into it – shame and subtlety be damned, he’s going to chew the scenery here.  He acts out all of the characters, be they women, children, perverts, introverts, even a metaphysical beast.  If he eventually goes way, way over the top, well that was his job, right?

Sadly, the rest of the film is much more ho-hum.

We’ve all seen the trapped teen girls storyline, and despite some looney-tunes variations there are very few surprises to come here.  Part of that problem is that two of the three girls are given no background, they are just generic victims.  Only Taylor-Joy’s character is given a back story, a surprisingly bleak one that is played out in periodic flashbacks..

Then, with little or no real reason, there is a tag scene which inexplicably tries to make a connection to this plotline with Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable, the follow-up to The Sixth Sense which became a fairly large hit and was decently reviewed, but betrayed the first chink in the wunderkind’s armor after his sublime breakthrough.  It had been all downhill from there until The Visit.  Well, Split does have one strong similarity to Unbreakable, it’s an okay but ultimately disappointing follow-up to a movie that showed off Shyamalan’s promise as a filmmaker.

Just like its antagonist, Split has a bit of a split personality.  It actually sometimes does work as a parody of horror films, but it never quite gets it together as an actual fright flick.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2017 All rights reserved. Posted: January 31, 2017.

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