[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:
Jonny 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.)