For years, the once great M. Night Shyamalan subjected audiences to bloated, tone-deaf, time-wasting efforts. Then, all of a sudden, he pumped out The Visit. This scrappy, micro-budget black comedy about a couple of rather unsettling grandparents was just what the doctor ordered, introducing us to a Shyamalan who seems to have finally gone back to his roots. Split largely follows that same model, albeit with much darker subject matter. It certainly has a couple powerhouse actors in James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy to its name. All the pieces are in place, which makes it all the more disappointing when Split reveals itself to be an absolute mess.
The story follows Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), three teenage girls who find themselves in a horrific pickle. A man named Kevin (James McAvoy) has abducted and confined them to a small cell in a mysterious fortress. However, Kevin isn’t your average girl-snatcher. He’s a man with 23 different personalities living inside of him, each with their own motivations and relationships with the others. They seem to have taken these girls for some kind of ritual involving ‘The Beast,’ a mysterious 24th persona that the others seem fearful of.
Shyamalan has set up a very ambitious story here but seems unsure of exactly how to tell it. This becomes an entirely different movie from scene to scene. It’ll go from being a tense abduction thriller to a goofy comedy, to a therapy training video within the span of five minutes. It could be argued that the disjointed structure could be to reflect what’s going on in Kevin’s head, but that never quite comes across. Shyamalan’s writing is so obtuse and vague that nothing grounds this story. None of these characters except Casey feel like real people. They’re either props for McAvoy to play off of, or plot devices to give the audience blatant exposition. We spend a great deal of time with Kevin’s therapist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as she explains Kevin’s disorder to other unimportant characters. There’s even a sequence straight out of Lucy where she is literally giving a ham-fisted lecture on the subject. It’s a film that wants to throw the audience for a loop sometimes only to spoon-feed them at others and the balance never gels.
James McAvoy is one of the finest character actors in the business and he throws himself into Kevin’s many alter-egos with complete conviction. He’s juggling different accents, mentalities, and agendas and does a good job at making them all feel really unique. Even the subtle contortions of his face make all of the difference between the obsessive-compulsive Dennis and the infantile Hedwig. However, Shyamalan never holds McAvoy back. It’s such a constantly showy performance that eventually he goes from being a creepy force of nature to complete cartoon character. It gets a little embarrassing to watch McAvoy devour the scenery after a while. On the flip-side, Anya Taylor-Joy continues her streak of fantastic horror movie turns. While her character is given an overwrought backstory that seems manufactured for shock value, she gives a wisely restrained performance here. She’s so damaged that she can relate to Kevin on some level and watching her try to act as his interpreter and confidant leads to the film’s strongest moments. Meanwhile, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula make no impression at all, while Betty Buckley tries her best to bring some gravitas to a trite cliche of a character.
While Shyamalan’s script is a hot mess, his direction does manage to keep the film afloat for a little while. This is the most restrained he’s been behind the camera for some time. Employing Mike Gioulakis’ (It Follows) masterfully claustrophobic cinematography, he works with the location to build the tension. Every room in this lair feels like it leads to nowhere. We’re as trapped in here with Kevin as these girls are. It’s actually surprisingly light on horror set pieces, opting more for character moments, which is a strong notion that would work great if the narrative was stronger.
For a while, Split is watchable if nothing else. It all seems to be leading to a payoff that would make or break the entire thing. Then, the third act arrives and completely combusts everything that came before. We’re treated to a ludicrous, left-field reveal that completely betrays the restrained tone that the rest of the film had been building up. It’s not only laughable in its own right but then pulls a set-up right out of its behind that feels insultingly cheap. Obviously, to go any further into it would ruin it, but the third act ultimately struck this movie down into being a flat-out failure.
I admire Shyamalan for trying to do something different with Split. For all of its faults, its a rather uniquely styled film. That said, it also completely defuses any of the tension by being so over-the-top. McAvoy’s commitment to the role ultimately ends up being a major weakness as Keven enters caricature territory. It’s a competent mess for a while but then the abysmal third-act brings it into the realm of complete trash. I’m rooting for Shyamalan and I believe that his new approach to filmmaking will lead to a film that is as great as he clearly hoped Split would be. However, he may want to stick with a story with one coherent personality to get there.