(Side note: Shyamalan directed, wrote, produced, and even cameoed in this film.)
There are several things that you need to know about this movie, including that some critics are lying to you. For starters, any talk about Shyamalan’s comeback is wildly premature. Despite The Visit’s favorable score, that movie was terrible on multiple levels, many of which were technical and writing-based. Thankfully, Split does not suffer from many of those , and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because Shyamalan got a talking-to. Don’t get me wrong, there are still issues that he needs to work on. For one example, the title cards in the opening credits are enormous white letters on flat black. Who does that? I had to look away from the screen to avoid burning my retinas.
Another bizarre thing I’ve seen is critics crediting the lead actor, James McAvoy, with portraying 23 different personalities. Here’s the opening line of Peter Travers’ (Rolling Stone) review:
“James McAvoy acts the hell out of 23 roles in Split…”
James McAvoy does no such thing. Throughout the entire movie, McAvoy predominantly plays four roles and cameos another five. If you don’t already know about this film, McAvoy plays a man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). In other words, he has 23 different personalities, and the aforementioned “roles” are some of those personalities. The only reason we know there are twenty-three is because his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), tells us and, later in the film, we see a computer screen with file folders numbered with each personality. Travers is either lying to his readers or he is terrible at math. My point is that I won’t lie to you. I swear.
(If there’s one thing I’m brutally honest about, it’s SPOILERS. There will be some.)
Now that I’ve told you about the main character, who’s legal name is Kevin Crumb….wait - we can’t just let that go. That’s a pretty on-the-nose character name you normally only find in comic books. In this case, Crumb because he’s only a fraction of the whole and he’s basically been discarded by the other personalities. *SIGH* Anyway, Kevin has abducted three high school girls (Casey, Claire, and Marcia) from a mall parking lot in broad daylight and nobody noticed. You have to excuse how badly this scene was directed, particularly the reactions of these girls to a strange man sitting in the driver’s seat, which is far too calm and bitchy. Anyway, the girls wake up later in a bunker-ish room and are confronted by Dennis, one of Kevin’s personalities. Dennis selects one of the girls, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and takes her out of the room, but not before Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) tells Marcia to pee on herself. Dennis quickly returns Marcia and is disgusted at the pee because he has OCD.
I bring up this detail because Dr. Fletcher will point out to another of Kevin’s personalities, Barry (who is actually Dennis pretending to be Barry, and it’s not subtle), that they (they being the collective of personalities referred to as “the horde”) previously got in trouble for wanting to force girls to dance naked. This little tidbit of information never comes back into play in the movie, and that is poor writing. Why draw attention to something if you aren’t going to use it later? Incidentally, this is one of those unfixed flaws I mentioned earlier.
When Dennis returns to the bunker, he apologizes to the girls and tells them they mustn’t be spoiled for the beast. Thus we get the true endgame of Dennis and another personality, Patricia, and learn what these girls have to be afraid of – what we can only assume is another personality that is some kind of monster. I’d like to tell you the rest of the movie is the girls trying to figure out how to escape while dealing with twenty-three different personalities, but then I’d be lying.
While the movie moves along fairly well, it continues to step all over any tension by jumping between therapy sessions, the girls, and Casey’s flashbacks to a hunting trip with her dad and uncle. This is a good time to mention that Shyamalan decided to give Casey a tortured past because nearly all of his characters have to have tortured pasts they must overcome, and he almost always fumbles that part of his characters. This time around is no different. Casey’s flashbacks reveal an abusive uncle whom she points a shotgun at, but can’t pull the trigger. One more flashback shows us said uncle getting custody of Casey after her father’s untimely death and no more flashbacks after that. So, the point of all those flashbacks was to show that Casey overcomes her ability to…fire a shotgun? Wait, that can’t be right – let me check my memory. *Too much time passes* Yep, that’s right. She never takes revenge on her uncle, and the kidnapping situation doesn’t involve sexual assault, so that whole tortured past thing is meaningless. Again, why introduce ideas, then discard them at the end? Overcoming kidnapping is pretty serious and the tension from wondering if they are going to get out of there is more than enough for this film. But Shyamalan just has to swing away, doesn’t he?
Getting back to the trampled tension, the therapy sessions are good for exposition but bad for tension. Every time the film cuts away from the girls, the tension stops because we know they aren’t in danger at that time. Also stepping all over the tension is Shyamalan’s attempt at trying to lighten the mood while trying to make it creepy at the same time with a personality named Hedwig who is nine years old. It kinda-sorta works – the audience was laughing at Hedwig, and McAvoy nailed the personality, but it never builds any tension. Really, Hedwig is just good for more exposition and being a little zany, and you never get the idea that he is going to help the girls out. As a matter of fact, none of the personalities try to help the girls out, which is the big fail of this story and the final reason why the tension is missing. Don’t you think that if you create a character that’s actually twenty-three characters, you should use more than three of them? Me too.
Luckily for Shyamalan, McAvoy puts this movie on his shoulders and carries it for its entire running time. McAvoy does such a great job of portraying the four main personalities (that includes the beast) that it seems as if it’s really four different actors that all look like McAvoy. He’s also so great that you don’t notice how mediocre are the rest of the actors’ performances. Heck, you might even forgive the parts of the screenplay I just dissected for you. But, as one of my Movie Fixers podcast co-hosts said (shameless plug), just because an actor gives a great performance, doesn’t make the movie great. That’s this movie in a nutshell.
Before I leave you and since you’ve been so patient and read all this way, it’s time to answer the question you really want to ask – is there another goddam Shyamalan twist? The answer is yes, but the details depend on who you ask. I suspect most people are going to think the twist is the very last thing you see in the movie, but that isn’t a twist, it’s a teaser. Other people will say it’s the reveal of the beast, but they literally tell you about that one beforehand (even if you aren’t really paying attention you’ll catch it). In my opinion, the twist is the reveal of where Kevin is keeping the girls (also where he lives) because it doubles as an explanation for one of the personalities. I waited the entire film to find this out and was sorely disappointed. But, I won’t ruin that for you because it isn’t so bad that it ruins the film. I know I and many others have been really hard on Shyamalan in the past, but this film shows that while he has a lot of work still to do, he has figured a few things out. Just remember, it’s the least-worst film he’s made in years.
Rating: Ask for $1.50 back. Trust me.