Released January 20, 2017
Rated PG-13 (Disturbing Thematic Content, Violence, Some Language)
Directed, Written, and Produced by M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, Signs)
Cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (John Dies at the End, It Follows)
Music by West Dylan Thordson (3 Generations, Joy)
Edited by Luke Franco Ciarrocchi (Jakarta Sins, The Visit)
Also Produced by Jason Blum (Insidious, Sinister) and Marc Bienstock (Wild Things 2, The Trials of Cate McCall)
Starring James McAvoy (Atonement, X-Men: First Class), Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan), Betty Buckley (Tender Mercies, The Happening), Haley Lu Richardson (The Bronze, The Edge of Seventeen), and Jessica Sula (Honeytrap, The Lovers)
If you’re a movie buff, you’re probably long tired of hearing and reading about Split. Maybe you don’t really have any desire to read yet another review of this film from January. But Mr. Malone and I watched it just a few days ago, and I want to talk about it a little at least. I promise I’ll keep the review brief.
Long story short, I liked Split a lot. I was somewhat over-hyped for it, I think, but that’s the danger of being tapped into the film community. When an unexpectedly good flick hits the scene and generates positive buzz, you’re going to hear a little too much about it. So, yeah, that did happen to me, but Split actually lived up to my expectations.
This is a tight, efficient, efficacious thriller. Not a horror movie like I expected. I never found it scary. Yet I definitely found it intriguing, and though it moves kind of slowly, I was engaged throughout the runtime. The movie, both in story and in general filmmaking – especially the cinematography, which is full of beautiful framing and tantalizing long takes by the man whose work I adored in It Follows – takes its time and builds everything up effectively.
Interestingly enough, Split‘s plot is at once both original and derivative, making for a fascinating blend: Three teen girls – one of them very withdrawn and introverted (Taylor-Joy), the other two your typical teenagers who’ve had it easy their whole lives (Richardson and Sula) – get kidnapped by a strange man, Kevin (McAvoy), who thinks he’s multiple people. Dissassociative identity disorder is his primary affliction, and fighting to help him and those like him is his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). Unlike her scientific community, Dr. Fletcher believes Kevin is extraordinary, but she doesn’t know about the girls, and she doesn’t believe in “The Beast,” whom three of Kevin’s twenty-three personalities worship. Meanwhile, the girls discover that they’re meant for something special, but they don’t wish to stick around and find out.
This story makes Split McAvoy’s movie, a wise move, because, man!, does McAvoy ever own his role, or should I say, roles. I believe McAvoy to be one of our generations best, most underrated talents in the acting business. Here he gets an aspiring actor’s dream job. However, most actors would screw this up, going too far over the top, but McAvoy doesn’t. Sure, he’s slightly exaggerated when he ought to be, but mostly he’s understated and reserved. I totally bought his performance, even in its most ridiculous portions.
The other actors are fine. Buckley and Taylor-Joy are good as his psychiatrist and one of the captured girls. Taylor-Joy captured everyone’s attention with last year’s The Witch, and while she may not be quite as good here, for what her character is supposed to be, she pulls it off well. It helps that she has an eerily attractive physicality about her, and she has successfully played to her strengths so far in her fledgling career. The other two captured girls don’t do quite as well, coming across a bit amateurish at times, though their acting, for some reason, seems to get a little better as the movie goes on.
My main problem with Split has to do with Shyamalan’s screenwriting skills. I really wish Shyamalan would let someone help him polish his screenplays more. See, he’s really good at coming up with cool movie ideas, and he sets everything up in his scripts to wring the most out of his amazing directorial ability. Yet he lacks the ability to always deliver completely on story and character development, and his dialogue can be pretty poor at times. I liked how he developed McAvoy’s character, but Taylor-Joy’s character development, especially in the way it is illustrated through flashbacks and facts of her past, was honestly kind of indelicate and distasteful. I don’t want to reveal exactly what I’m talking about, but it’s the sort of subject matter that can be dealt with in a movie but not one of this sort. Shyamalan seemingly means well, but it doesn’t come across as well as it should, and I feel the disturbing theme’s implementation is not meaningfully sensitive to real life victims.
And coming back around, the dialogue, though mostly fine, has various moments of exposition so obvious and clumsy that I just had to laugh a little, and most of those are in dire moments of the plot. In addition, many of the labels given to certain fictional elements, and science both real and fake, are cringey words and phrases. Despite all this, there’s nothing that even gets close to the terribleness of The Happening, so at least that consoles me!
My problems with Split are nitpicky, I know, but when you create such a slick and minimalistic thriller as this movie is, you invite attention to any lazy or poor elements. Split‘s positives far outweigh its negatives, though, and I definitely recommend seeing it if you haven’t already.
I’m going to give Split an 84%.
It’s good to see Shyamalan back in the game. He was making stinkers there for a while, but he seems to have found a good home at Blumhouse Productions. Perhaps he, like most directors, just needs to be restrained but not constrained. Perhaps, for Shyamalan, that means he needs a smaller budget and a more contained story, which, so far in his career, is where he shines the brightest.
P.S.: Yes, I am excited about the reveal at the end of the movie 🙂 Bring it on!