By Preston Wilder
I won’t describe the last few seconds of Split, but it’s fair to say they confirm it as a film by M. Night Shyamalan. Ever since making his name with The Sixth Sense in 1999, the Indian-born writer-director (who also likes to take small roles in his films, and does so here) has developed a very specific brand: psychological horror – or sometimes sci-fi – played as a puzzle, with constant simmering tension and often a twist in the tail. Fans find the movies ingenious. Detractors (who’ve grown in number since the days of The Sixth Sense) find them hollow and meretricious, charging them with thin, empty plots that flatter to deceive.
Split is likely to fuel the detractors – though in fact reviews have been positive and the premise, plus Shyamalan’s knack for eerie suggestion, keep the film alive for about half its (overlong) running-time. If you haven’t read the plot or seen the trailer – which spoils too much, as trailers always do – you should probably stop reading now, simply because trying to put the pieces together in the opening half-hour is Split’s keenest pleasure.
The prologue is a grabber. A teenage girl named Claire is having a party in a restaurant. One of her guests is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a “mercy invite” who’s unpopular and sits on her own, away from the group. At the end of the party, Claire’s dad drives Casey home, along with Claire and her friend Marcia – but, while they’re still in the parking lot, a strange man knocks Dad unconscious, gets in the car and abducts the girls. They wake up locked in a room, like Brie Larson in Room. The strange man (James McAvoy) is Dennis. Or possibly Barry. Or maybe Patricia. Or maybe a child named Hedwig. In fact his real name is Kevin but he suffers from DID, dissociative identity disorder, meaning he has 23 different personalities knocking around in his damaged psyche.
For a while, the film is superb. Shyamalan is a master at withholding; he knows the power of showing a closed door behind which bad things are happening. He also knows how to tease with fragmented structure, alternating the plight of the kidnapped girls with irrelevant-seeming flashbacks to Casey as a child. Visuals are stark and measured, the dialogue studded with cryptic nuggets (“You are sacred food”). Above all, Casey herself is intriguingly ambivalent. She alone knows that something is wrong in the prologue – she sees Dad’s bag of food lying on the ground in the rear-view mirror – so why does she get in the car anyway, with a kind of resigned expression? Why, in the room, does she seem to know more than the others? Taylor-Joy may or may not be a great actress, but her big eyes are wonderfully eloquent; there’s a deep secret life in this heroine.
McAvoy has the flashier role, of course – though in fact his performance is mostly caricature, heavy on the smirks, darting eyes and speech impediments. Most of the personalities are never seen, two are glimpsed briefly (a diabetic and, absurdly, a historian who reels off historical facts) and only four are laid out in any detail. As ‘Barry’, a fashion designer, McAvoy offers smooth patter plus the occasional effeminate swish; ‘Hedwig’, being a child, gets a lisp and frantic body language; ‘Dennis’ and ‘Patricia’ are colder, the former with an edge of scowling menace. It’s all pretty basic, pulpy stuff – there’s even a secret weapon: if you say Kevin’s full name he gets wrenched back to reality, like Beetlejuice – but we roll with it in anticipation of some clever twists.
Yet the film goes on and on, mired in dull dialogue scenes and a stifling, undeserved seriousness. Religious undertones start creeping in (“the Light”, “the Beast”). A doctor opines that patients with DID, far from being freaks, may in fact have “unlocked the potential of the brain”. Maybe they have – but is this the place for a medical debate? Save that stuff for the next Eddie Redmayne Oscar-botherer.
The mind starts to wander, and may indeed start flashing back to previous Shyamalan movies – the oblique pomposity with which The Village disguised its flimsy ‘solution’ for the better part of two hours, or the way Signs misdirected its audience with talk of higher things lest they laugh out loud at the true significance of “Swing away”. This director does indeed have a brand-name style, its main characteristics being bombast, literal-mindedness and twists which are either simple-but-effective (as in his previous film, The Visit) or simple-and-stupid. I won’t reveal where the last few seconds of this one belong – but they literally won’t make sense unless you’re already a Shyamalan fan, or at least familiar with his oeuvre. And the film itself? Half-compelling, or half-disappointing? I guess it’s just split.
DIRECTED BY M. Night Shyamalan
STARRING James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley
US 2016 117 mins