Is there a more frustrating director/screenwriter than M. Night Shyamalan? He builds up our hopes with the odd gem(The Sixth Sense), lowers our expectations with flops (Lady in the Water), establishes himself as the guy who we can at least rely on for a half-decent twist, and then just stuffs it all up. His latest feature, Split, sets itself up as a return to form that feels like it’s going somewhere exciting. But ultimately, it doesn’t offer up any valuable surprises.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) accepts a lift from classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Before they know it a creepy man who most certainly isn’t Claire’s father is in the front seat. They wake up locked in a room fearing for their lives. The man, ‘Dennis’ (James McAvoy) returns to the room briefly before his OCD sees him run off. The girls hear a woman’s voice; they hope she will help them. She opens the door, but it’s the same man, as ‘Patricia’. As ‘Barry’, the man attends sessions with a psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who treats his Dissociative Identity Disorder. The girls meanwhile have to figure out which personalities they can trust, and which they should fear.
While the characters of Claire and Marcia are mostly there to cry and scream, Casey is established from the get go as one who stands apart from the pack. She isn’t even friends with the others; she’s the social outcast to their cool girls. While Claire and Marcia think their best bet is to fight, she has other plans. One is convincing nine-year-old ‘Hedwig’ to help them. Hedwig is there largely for comic relief, and is perhaps the highlight of the film.
Aside from the criticism of demonising those with this psychological disorder, Split has a fascinating, rich character at its core. Kevin (the original identity) has 24 personalities, however Shyamalan makes the wise decision to focus on just six, with an extra three emerging briefly in a late scene. While it would have been interesting to see more, this may have proved too much. As it is, James McAvoy is able to showcase his extraordinary versatility as an actor, in what I believe is his first time playing a (partial) villain. He pulls it off. You’re with him one second, vehemently against him the next.
While Shyamalan’s direction is fine, his screenplay is lacking. But having said that, it’s really quite good until the final moments. We’ve come to expect a decent twist and he well and truly disappoints here. Viewers are advised not to spend the whole movie getting excited for a twist. Unless perhaps you’re a massive M. Night Shyamalan fan in which case there may be more to appreciate. I personally have some big problems with one aspect of the ending but to delve any further into this would risk spoilers.
If the journey is exciting, does the ending matter too much? Well, probably if you’ve spent that whole journey assuming that it will all culminate in a major pay-off. As it is, this thriller goes pretty much exactly where it tells you it’s going, and that isn’t very satisfying at all.
Split is in cinemas from 26th January through Universal Pictures.