“I am serious…and don’t call me Shirley” – SPLIT (2017) from Jonny Numb

[118 minutes. PG-13. Director: M. Night Shyamalan]

***This review contains SPOILERS***

While obvious, it bears repeating: M. Night Shyamalan hit hard with the Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense in 1999. With the auteur put on a high pedestal so early in his career, it’s easy to imagine his subsequent films getting tripped up in a game of matching – if not exceeding – what came before. I can’t speak to Shyamalan’s post-Signs output, but Split bears the hallmarks of a director making a desperate bid to recapture his former glory.

But maybe “desperate” isn’t the right word, as Split will have bypassed the $100-million mark (on a $10 million budget, no less) by the time this review is published.

In a role that a younger Johnny Depp might have jumped at, James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with “23 distinct personalities,” who kidnaps a trio of teenage girls – Boss Mean Girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Middle Manager Mean Girl Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Obligatory Basket Case Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) – because…well, that would be giving it away.

But wait a second…is it possible to spoil something that’s already rotten? Now there’s a paradox for ya.

Considering how well-crafted The Sixth Sense was – lining up characters and events for unexpectedly touching plot crescendos – Split is a special kind of disaster to behold: from concept to execution to the seemingly endless wait for the third-act twist, it’s afflicted by a throw-shit-against-the-wall approach that not only drastically diminishes its thriller potential, but comes off as callous in its depiction of mental illness.

In the same year as The Sixth Sense, Fight Club garnered controversy not only for its “depiction of anti-social behavior” (per the MPAA content descriptor), but its use of a similar plot twist. Unlike Split, however, Fight Club justified its madness as a reflection of a greater cultural malaise, with a character who acknowledged his complicity in the twisted world he’d (semi-consciously) created. Director David Fincher didn’t make allowances or justifications for the behavior on display, and, by rejecting Hollywood convention, the film became a generational firebrand – infuriating complacent, middle-aged critics while appealing to youth on the cusp of adult responsibility.

As thrillers go, Split sets up a game with essential pieces missing…and a board that’s been cut in half. If there’s any subtext worthy of greater analysis, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a wide-release movie with such goggle-eyed, baffled performances (the teenage cast gets the worst of it, though Betty Buckley’s psychiatrist doesn’t fare much better). Adding insult to injury, Shyamalan ogles the partially-clad females in a manner that borders on the “windowless van” club.

There are moments where our girls, trapped in McAvoy’s subterranean house of horrors, suggest rushing their captor, but are more than willing to sit (again, goggle-eyed) while he does his Johnny Depp thing. Also not-good: how the two Mean Girls insist that Basket Case is “one of them” despite their ostracizing her at a birthday party. Sloppy.

For a film that includes plot points hinging on the one-two punch of child molestation and murder, Shyamalan seems oblivious to how tasteless this story really is, but goes about business in an inexplicably cavalier (and inexplicably PG-13) manner. As long as you don’t show the bad thing happening, it’s okay. Yeesh.

I never thought I’d see the day when Peter Jackson’s woefully misguided The Lovely Bones came off as a tasteful-by-comparison rendering of similar themes, but here we are.

Just as offensive is Shyamalan’s depiction of mental illness. The trailer for Split – leaning heavily on McAvoy’s persona­-swapping – put a bothersome twist in my guts, and what the film does with this, in addition to being incredibly confusing, also sends messages that are deadly mixed. I can’t in good conscience praise McAvoy’s performance, which amounts to an aimless string of vignettes (including – god help us – a hip-hop dance number) left untethered by a story that has no fucking clue what it wants to be. By the end, the only thing made clear is that McAvoy was cast for a purely commercial reason (tying in to his X-Men tenure). And the closing decree – that “damaged” people are the most “pure” of all – carries no consolation and even less truth, especially after McAvoy’s ultimate personality goes on a kill-crazy rampage. By that point, Shyamalan’s thoroughly wrongheaded approach has also equated the mentally ill with zoo animals – dangerous, and only suited to cages. Toxic.

Talk about a movie that would please the current Administration. Maybe that’s why Split is doing so well with audiences: its pervasive ineptitude and zero-tolerance policy against The Other is just what Trump’s cronies are seeking in their quest to “make America great again.”

1 out of 5 stars

Crash Analysis Support Team:

unknownJonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and loudgreenbird.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

(Split photo from PopSugar.)

  • GuyRicketts

    Yikes! Sounds like I won’t be watching this anytime soon. Grateful for the warning with detailed reasons, Jonny – though I confess this movie will be eventually watched, only relegated to the “ultimately renting it on Netflix” pile.
    It’s too bad, as I still like M Night for Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

    • crashpalace

      I love your “ultimately” line, Guy. I’m the same way!

      Have a great one, my friend!

    • Jon Weidler

      Thanks, Guy! The lower-risk Netflix option is the only sane choice in this instance.

      • crashpalace

        Nice!

  • Susan Leighton

    Everyone is praising this as M.Night’s comeback & McAvoy’s opus. It almost sounds like overacting & that would put it in the John Lithgow Raising Cain category for me. WTF did I just pay money to see? I might see it on cable but don’t think I will expend the effort. Great review as always, Jonny.

    • Jon Weidler

      Thanks, Susan! If I can take the hit and save someone a few bucks (and lost hours) in the process, my job is complete.

      I agree with the RAISING CAIN comparison, but that one was at least smart enough not to take itself too seriously. Watching SPLIT convinced me that Shyamalan thought he was making a horror-thriller with something profound to say about mental illness, and the fact that it was so severely misguided made me hate it even more.

      • Susan Leighton

        I will probably watch this when it comes to cable or some streaming service. Some of Night’s stuff isn’t his best effort. This film is so polarizing, I will take a look at it but I have the feeling I will side with you.

        • crashpalace

          I’m with you on that one, Susan.

  • Jon, I’m hoping my comments don’t add stars to your rating, but friend, you’re preachig the SPLIT gospel to a horror-starved choir.
    In past-due respect to your current Administration comparison, I fear your future horror fare cup runneth over for such fodder. How about this suggestion, “Let’s make horror great again!” MNightGoodnightS has been asleep at the CHRISTINE wheel for far too long. Yet, Ambo continues to drag me screamin’ and bicthin’ to his all smoke and lackluster mirrors snooze fests. SPLIT was such a nap trap.
    Serendipity was afoot as Ambo and I suffered through the cluttered mess at a butt-spanking new Carmike dinner theater, not-even-a-film-fun-house. Snacks and drinks of any and all kinds to include grub must be ordered through a waitress who proceeds to interrupt your viewing of the flicker movie. In short, the numerous waiters foottrafficing hither and yon, chatter, and money-changers (in need of JC in the Temple with a stick therapy) were perfect accompaniments to the latest MNightS horrorible.
    SPOLIER ALERT – your waitress adds a hefty tip to your bill… a $7.50 menu-priced bowl of thunder maise with copious butter becomes 10 $mackeroos on the bill tendered in the dark as the third act is heating up, but in this situation, the annoyance was far less than what was happening on the screen with the sparse unseen killing and climbing the walls and ceilings like THE FLY suddenly pumped-up on steroids like a UFC Heavyweight Champion. Who woulda thunk all you needed to survive Night’s spliting-headache-inducing beast was a few body scars or similar tatts!
    BTW, yep. The millenials, female and male (duh), are easily drawn into theaters by hunks and that more than halfway explains the $100 mil take so far with pre-release advertising explaining much of the rest… go figure, Freddy Krueger.
    Please pardon, the shameful MNightS influenced advertising below, working on my first mil.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a097c670a8d2d6a897110305dcfde2143b5bbda6c646982dea8330a5038e8d32.jpg

    • Jon Weidler

      Ron, I thank you, as always, for your unfiltered color commentary on film and the filmgoing experience. The annoying “dinner-theaters” have not yet made their way to central PA, and I plan on avoiding them like the plague once they do. (One of the newer multiplexes where I used to live allowed alcohol in the theaters, which I can at least wrap my head around…especially if the movie’s terrible.)

      As an aside, prior to SPLIT, the last MNightScoobyDooGang joint I witnessed was SIGNS, which I didn’t think was half bad when I saw it in the definitely non-dinner-theater world of 2002. But the bad notices and my general lack of interest kept me away from his subsequent efforts (though I know stuff like THE VISIT and THE VILLAGE have their adherents). Seems as though I should’ve stayed away. I like McAvoy, but this film was a performance(s) in search of a purpose, and I’d rather watch Anya Taylor-Joy in the unfairly derided MORGAN than subject myself to SPLIT ever again.

      • crashpalace

        YOW!

  • pjw775170

    Hey, Jonny:

    First, I root for M. Night, but I don’t defend his 2004 to 2013 movies; they were terrible. However, as I’ve stated in previous articles, he is a talented director, particularly in the genre he operates in, with limitless potential.

    SPLIT: I agree with your comments on the movie’s depiction of mental illness; I just want to get that out of the way. With that said, I liked this more than you. Didn’t love it, but after THE VISIT, I thought this was, at minimum, a step in the right direction for M. Night, considering how low he sank. He directs scenes in SPLIT that I found terrifying.

    I think, ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that the movie on a whole is not as good as the sum of its parts. M. Night’s directorial touches and performances he elicits from his actors, grim though they are at times, makes me wonder how good a movie would be if he directed someone else’s screenplay.

    I can think a few scripts he can try…

    • Jon Weidler

      Thanks for your honesty, Paul.

      I did not see THE VISIT, but perhaps I should short-list it for a watch, as you and Bill (and many others) have spoken fondly of it.

      I do think M. Night has a good grasp of visual storytelling and cinematography. I liked the grimly oppressive feel of McAvoy’s subterranean lair. But I felt that the script got tangled early and often, and the go-for-broke pursuit of its poor decisions left a more-than-capable cast stranded.

      I’d be all for him branching out and tackling someone else’s words. You’re in Jersey, I’m in Harrisburg, and he’s in Philly(?) – I think we need to triangulate a lunch meeting, posthaste! 😉