Released to the general public in January 2017, Split is the second movie in M. Night Shyamalan’s comeback bid to relevance and repute.
The film stars two principal characters: Casey and Kevin. Casey is a teenager who gets abducted along with her two friends by Dennis, one of Kevin’s multiple personalities. Kevin, despite having only a few minutes of screen time, is the main character because he was the original personality and owner of the body before childhood trauma fractured his mind into twenty-three separate identities. Dennis is a neat and tidy authoritarian figure who, along with Patricia, wrests control from all the other personalities. He does this because he believes he and Patricia are the only two strong enough to confront and placate “the beast”, the rumoured twenty-fourth personality. The girls are captured to serve as sacrifices for the beast to devour.
An awesome and interesting premise to be sure, hence my curiosity. This review will talk about what the film does good and bad, followed by a brief discussion on the M. Night Shyalman style of film. There will most definitely be spoilers, and this movie is worth watching, so beware!
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way: James McAvoy steals the show. His performance of the multiple personalities is convincing and all the more impressive considering how many different roles he had to play. I will never ever forget this one scene where the psychiatrist believes Dennis is faking one of the other personalities and calls him out. The next shot is of Dennis dropping the facade and reverting to his old self. McAvoy’s changing expression, done without CG, was tremendous! You actually see one personality fading away into another. This happens multiple times throughout the film, but this was the best example because it was a close-up with no cuts.
The second great thing about this film is that the story is unique. Sound the trumpets! There are directors and producers willing to stand up against remakes and Disney! Hallejuah! Split succeeds at delivering a brand new intellectual property to audiences, and deserves to be lauded for even trying. The story is about a guy who suffers from extreme dissociative identity disorder, and in this film’s world certain individuals afflicted also undergo physiological changes to their bodies when they assume another personality. For example, one identity can be left handed while the others are right-handed, one can suffer from diabetes while the others do not, and so on. The reason the girls are captured is because a couple of the personalities believes they will be adequate sacrifices for the 24th identity that only they know about: the beast.
And that is where the film gains its natural tension and anxiety. The audience is told that these people can physically change their bodies to match what their personalities believe themselves to be. Shortly afterward, Dennis tells Casey of the beast: an enormous humanoid monster with long fingers, a bulging frame, and a voracious appetite for human flesh, and from there until the end that dread hangs over the entire film.
Great performances + unique and intriguing story = winner!
The ending kinda blows.
What ends up happening is that the beast is indeed real, and we see an awesome transformation into a terrifying half-Xerxes, half-wolverine monster that kills our beloved psychiatrist character and eat the entrails of the two other girls. However, when he has Casey cornered and ready to be eaten, the beast backs off after realizing Casey is damaged just like himself (the original Kevin). Weak.
Then there’s that tie-in with Unbreakable, which does absolutely nothing for the story, unless a third movie comes out where it’s Bruce Willis vs. James McAvoy (doesn’t sound too bad, actually).
It’s a mess, and feels like a hasty resolution to just end the story because, you know, stories generally need an ending. The worst part is that Casey’s character resolution is abrupt and unresolved.
We learn that Casey is aloof and distant because she has grown up being molested and raped by her uncle. Near the end of the movie it is evident the story wants to draw comparisons between Casey’s ordeal with McAvoy’s character, and the actual real-life beast of her pedophile uncle. However, her shot cuts away before we see whether or not she finally speaks out and stands up to the uncle, and the lack of resolution is jarring and leaves many things hanging in the air.
In fact, I would argue the whole child-molestation side plot wasn’t even necessary. Yes, it’s nice when you acknowledge human suffering and try to tell a story about people triumphing over shitty situations, but it doesn’t need to be in every movie. Keeping the story focused on Casey escaping her confinement and dealing with the beast would’ve been enough to convince us that she is a strong character with determination, perseverance, and a strong will. The fact that she is a sex victim ultimately plays no major role in the film and doesn’t even receive any closure.
We can also be nitpicky about the script. Every now and then there were lines that seemed unnatural and out-of-character. None of these were spoken by our two mains, but this kind of sloppiness was just strange and stood out like a sore thumb.
The Shyamalan School of Storytelling
Starting with The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan has consistently demonstrated his talent for coming up with unique and intriguing stories. While the execution of his stories hasn’t always been successful, or even watchable, the fact that he tries to come up with new ideas is especially noteworthy in today’s cinematic environment.
I think we didn’t really give him much credit because a lot of genres and styles in the film industry were coming into their own in the early 90s. A transformation was happening all around: computers were playing an increasing role in the form of CG graphics, superhero movies finally had the finances and technical capability to wow us, and film studios hadn’t captured remake/re-imagining fever yet.
Consider what else came out in 1999 (same year as Sixth Sense): Fight Club, American Beauty, The Matrix, Eyes Wide Shut, The Green Mile, The Iron Giant, The Mummy, and more.
These were unique film properties.
Today, we have Star Wars every year, a superhero movie every month, and at least twice a year there’s some remake of an old-school favourite (Jurassic World, The Mummy 2017, The Force Awakens, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, and the list goes on). It is precisely because this is what Hollywood is giving us that I am now an official fan of Shyamalan.
Give us new stories. Show our imaginations new worlds with new views and new ideas. That is what we really want, not a half-hearted attempt at reliving something that happened in our youth (okay, some people actually want that, and I would argue that is not a healthy way to think, but gamobo is not a philosophy or happy living style blog). Because Shyamalan is a director willing to take chances, make mistakes, and get messy, I will most definitely be following his filmography with great interest from here on out, and if you know what’s good for you, my movie-loving friend, you will too, if you haven’t found your go-to director yet.
Watch it! It’s a great movie not only because it’s different, but it has a solid story up to the climax, and the performances are magnificent. Those who enjoy suspense and will get a kick out of this film. The tension that occurs just from not knowing who McAvoy will be next is palpable, and when a character can do that without saying a line or being on screen, you’ve got something special.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.