Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)
Directed by: M Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Kim Director, Jessica Sula
Shyamalan deals with subjects he shouldn't touch with a barge pole here, exploiting the most sensitive subject imaginable, and in the poorest taste. It's a topic that once introduced, means the film can no longer be viewed as a piece of entertainment, and has no right being broached in what is otherwise a popcorn thriller.
Many of you will likely disagree, but M Night Shyamalan's found footage thriller The Visit was one of last year's finest movies, a rousing comeback for one of cinema's most maligned filmmakers. I must confess I'm something of a Shyamalan apologist, finding something of value in even his undeniable stinkers. I even had a blast with The Happening, if only in a 'so bad it's great' way. I've died on more hills than Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow defending Shyamalan, but with his latest, Split, he's on his own; this is indefensibly awful.
Split opens in admittedly thrilling fashion, with an impressively mounted pre-credits sequence that sees a trio of teenage girls chloroformed and abducted by a mysterious creep played by James McAvoy. When the girls wake from their unwilling slumber, they find themselves locked in a mysterious room. After several encounters with their abductor, it becomes clear he's suffering from an extreme form of multiple personality disorder, appearing variously as an intimidating adult man, a nine-year-old boy and an English accented woman.
These early scenes introduce a potentially interesting dynamic between the abductees. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), the 'popular' one, suggests a gung ho physical assault on their abductor. Her meek sidekick Marcia (Jessica Sula) goes along with Claire, as we suspect she does in every aspect of her life. Melancholic loner Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) dismisses the plan as folly, noting the unfeasible physical strength displayed by McAvoy. But this tension leads nowhere, as the girls are soon separated, and McAvoy's character becomes the focus of the narrative. It's a shame, as this is a trio of young actresses who have delivered impressive work in the recent past - Taylor-Joy as the heroine of this year's indie horror hit The Witch, Richardson as the long suffering best friend of Hailee Steinfeld in acclaimed teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen, and Sula one of the breakout stars of 2014 in gritty British true-crime drama Honeytrap.
You might assume a narrative of this nature would be most interested in the plight of its three protagonists, but it soon becomes clear that we're not watching a simple abduction thriller here, but rather the origin story of a super-villain. McAvoy, who delivers a tour-de-force performance in his multiple guises, is the film's real lead, and Split is very much his story, charting his progression from deranged young man to quasi-supernatural bad guy. Remember how, before they allowed Marvel to use Spider-Man, Sony Pictures were planning a series of movies based on the web-slinger's various foes? Split gives you some idea of how those movies may have played out.
We're told McAvoy's character is inhabited by no less than 23 separate personalities, but save for a seemingly Batman V Superman inspired scene in which a character watches video clips on a PC, we only see him exhibit three of them, and the gimmick quickly wears thin. There are several scenes in which he meets with his therapist, Karen (Betty Buckley), and they exist simply to dole out exposition in an attempt to posit his condition as a real-world ailment, even though he's clearly gifted with the powers of a comic book villain. It's like watching the final scene of Psycho over and over again.
Split is plagued, like so many bad horror movies, by characters who make idiotic decisions, or fail to make any decisions at all. Not until the final act does anyone seem to realise the severity of their situation, and of course by then it's too late. Karen might be cinema's most irresponsible therapist; she can clearly see how unstable her patient is becoming, but refuses to alert any authorities, instead venturing into the villain's lair unaccompanied. At one point Casey is able to contact the outside world on a walkie-talkie, but the person on the other end laughs off her pleas for help as a prank, despite the story of her abduction playing on every bloody TV set we see in the movie.
Split is a narrative car crash, but that's not the worst of its problems. Shyamalan deals with subjects he shouldn't touch with a barge pole here. For a start there's the issue of McAvoy's condition, which puts us in the queasy position of rooting against someone suffering from a mental illness. Then there's the constant implied sexual threat, with the young girls made to gradually lose items of clothing until they're down to their undies. But worst of all is the content of a series of flashbacks that fill us in on why Casey is so troubled. It exploits the most sensitive subject imaginable, and in the poorest taste. It's a topic that once introduced, means the film can no longer be viewed as a piece of entertainment, and has no right being broached in what is otherwise a popcorn thriller. How Shyamalan chooses to resolve this sub-plot results in one of the grimmest and most upsetting endings of a mainstream Hollywood movie I've ever witnessed.
As this is a Shyamalan movie, we know the film will end with a twist, but here the ultimate surprise is extra-textual, unrelated to what we've just watched, but rather tying it into a wider franchise (scroll down for a spoiler discussion of the implications of this). While Split is disturbing in many ways, the only thing scary about Shyamalan's movie is the implication that this is merely the beginning of a larger saga.
Split is in cinemas January 20th 2017.
At the end of Split, McAvoy's villain is on the run from the authorities, equipped with Hulk-like strength and Spider-Man-like agility. The final scene takes place in a diner, where a news report of the situation plays. A customer mentions how it reminds her of that crazy guy in a wheelchair from about 15 years ago. "What was his name?", she asks. She's given the answer by none other than Bruce Willis, in the guise of his character from Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable, who replies "Mr Glass!"
So it seems we now have the Shyamalan Cinematic Universe. Are we to assume a future movie will feature Willis battling McAvoy? And what of Taylor-Joy's Casey? Split ends with her returning to her uncle, who has been sexually abusing her since becoming her childhood guardian. How will Shyamalan address this most grimmest of denouements? And will he tie more of his past movies into this new franchise?