Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
The Plot: Meet Kevin Wendell Crumb. (James McAvoy) M. Night Shyamalan’s new Many-Me. With twenty-three (cresting into twenty-four) different alter egos Kevin is more habitat than human being. When one of Kevin’s alter personalities kidnaps three underage high school girls (Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richarson, Anya Taylor-Joy) the crime leaves the rest of his troubled psyche to sort the situation out. Some would like to help the girls escape, while others want to keep them alive for a bigger purpose. The purpose? Sacrificing them to a developing persona known in hushed inner circles as The Beast.
The Film: With his marquee market stripped of him for the crimes of manufacturing over-budget bombs like The Last Airbender, The Happening, and After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan has embraced the lurid matinee underworld with much aplomb, and with The Visit, and now with his latest project, Split, has found fresh traction making effectively entertaining PG-13 horror thrillers. Shyamalan on a budget may be the best thing to ever happen to the filmmaker, or his bedeviled fan base – whatever their enrollment may be during this dusky hour of his career. Split certainly feels like a classic Shyamalan experience. M. Night even employs his vintage M. Night cameo in this one. It does not come off as farce on this occasion.
Upon reflection, even the excessive running time (a 117 minute thriller is normally twenty-seven lbs. overweight) makes total sense considering the story the filmmaker is actually telling. And what a story Split tells. Perhaps the nastiest in M. Night Shyamalan’s catalog yet.
Split certainly plays as a fun, much more perverse, companion piece to last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, or even M. Night’s recent foray into found footage, The Visit, but this film ultimately turns out to be a much more diabolical companion to something else entirely. Split is twisted long before the finale rotates into its expected twist – a true whopper this time around. The central story is negotiating categorically macabre subject matter. Sexual battery. Dissociative identity disorder. Cannibalism. Child abduction. Child abuse of every kind and rank. In what must have been delivered under a juggernaut of studio executive emails bearing down on M. Night to tone the subject matter of his latest PG-13 thriller down, he plays it dark and dirty and delivers a true deviant of a motion picture.
Split is, for lack of a better term, divided into four different films. The one we paid to see – the lion’s share of the plot where James McAvoy’s sophisticated lunatic kidnaps three underage girls, locks them in his dungeon, refers to them as “Sacred Food”, and slowly – through his pervy inner-proxy ‘Dennis’ – forces the teenagers to remove articles of clothing using the ruse of germ containment, and generally makes anyone fluent in parental instincts and generally good taste wickedly uncomfortable, nearly beyond reform.
The other film concerns Kevins’s (a calculated [sic]) doctor as she treats the 23 different people vying for the steering wheel in a mad bid for the rare resource of consciousness. (the film refers to this as “gaining the light” – a Shyamalanism) It’s through his doctor we realize how extensive the D.I.D. (an uppity acronym for split personality disorder) affects this troubled, aggressively sweet young man.
The third film involves a hunting trip from Anya Taylor-Joy’s character’s past. The less said about that one the better. For decorum mainly, but also because I firmly believe that story simply can’t be taken at face value.
The fourth and final film is the one we’re left to assemble in our collective heads as we try to dismantle and repurpose what these plot pieces M. Night is teasing us with will actually add up to by the big finale. Think of it as an exercise in forced audience participation. A communal attempt at cracking the sleight of hand and ignoring the many misdirections of a seasoned professional street magician.
Of course, none of this works without considerable force from the acting talent. It’s a film light on setting and cast, heavy on concept, if James McAvoy hadn’t been up to the task of performing at least seven different personalities from his quiver of twenty-four – Dennis the phobic pervert, the cunning and catty Patricia, the charming art school hipster Barry, Hedwig, the nine year old kid who pretty much steals the entire movie from everyone, McAvoy included – I can’t imagine we’d have much more than a liberally underwhelming straight-to-streaming horror/thriller.
Yet there’s still one more personality left for James McAvoy to play, The Beast of prophecy. The golem being molded in the murk of Kevin’s elaborate id. The monster at the end of this book. The creature waiting to eat Gretel – Anya Taylor-Joy – after she escaped the evil clutches of The Witch.
We couldn’t have wished for a better pair of actors to square off in what is essentially the most bipolar motion picture of M. Night Shyamalan’s bipolar career. The six months of kempo training her friends participated in at the King Of Prussia Mall just aren’t going to be enough to take on a fiend as considerable as Kevin, but Casey Cooke seems every bit his match. It’s really a battle between eyes in Split – the sweet, dark depths of Taylor-Joy’s peepers up against McAvoy’s radiantly blue pools. Trust me, you want to find yourself caught in the center of this staring match.
The Verdict: M. Night Shyamalan has certainly created a film as factitious as its lead villain. For those that get it you may find yourself in the same condition I did at the press screening earlier this week – completely riveted. For those that don’t, you’re still going to be treated to at least six of the best performances of James McAvoy’s career. So it won’t be a total wash. I can’t tell you how happy I am to report that M. Night’s track record now appears to be trending upward. Also, that ending.