So once again we have survived.

Split

Request: please be extra careful in the comments not to give away that one surprise thing where people might see it by accident.

SPLIT is M. Night Shyamalan’s odd little thriller about three teenage girls abducted from a parking lot and kept locked in a room by a man calling himself Dennis (James McAvoy). Terror turns to confusion when he starts coming to the room talking different, acting different, claiming to be different people. It turns out Dennis is just one of 23 personalities in this guy, and they don’t all necessarily support what he’s doing.

Logically you assume this kidnapper is gonna be a rapist or killer, and these may be true, but for now he’s being told to cool it by “Patricia,” a female personality who shows up occasionally to make the girls mayo sandwiches and assure them “he’s not supposed to touch you.” Oh, okay, that’s comforting. He also shows up as “Hedwig,” an 11 year old boy who likes to dance and listen to Kanye West and giggles a little when he warns them that “The Beast” is coming.

I haven’t always been on board for McAvoy (WANTED, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN, X-MEN FIRST CLASS), who’s obviously a good actor but seems weirdly prone to playing heroes who are a little too douchey to completely root for. But here he’s truly great. Each character has a different voice, accent and body language – you can recognize them even before he speaks, even if he doesn’t change his clothes. (Though he usually does. He seems to be very fast at it.) McAvoy is clearly having alot of fun with this, taking his acting skills and doing a bunch of donuts and wheelies and shit. Going off jumps.

The central gimmick of the movie, explained by therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, the gym teacher from CARRIE – great to see her as a co-lead in this!), is a theory that different personalities can have different body chemistry. She talks of cases where people are blind or diabetic only with one of their personalities and not the rest of the time. Since she really believes in these mind-powered bodily transformations she’s a little nervous about Kevin (that’s the guy’s real name) believing in this “Beast.” What’s he gonna do? Is he gonna grow hairy or something? This could get weird.

There’s definitely a big PSYCHO influence, obviously with the subject matter and the movie’s tendency to focus on the killer, though his not-evil personalities seem to be a little more complicit than Norman Bates is with his imagined mother. Hitchcock’s shadow also hangs over the music, the opening titles, Shyamalan’s traditional director cameo, and the doctor’s role as deliverer of exposition. But she’s more like Buckley’s character from CARRIE: a very caring person who sees trouble coming and tries to help, but might be in over her head.

She’s familiar with his 23 personalities, but hasn’t met all of them. She thinks they’re up to something, and sometimes impersonating each other. One of them named Barry seems to keep emailing her for help, and then the others take over and tell her everything’s fine. She tries to tread lightly, politely, and get the truth out of them.

Shyamalan has had a questionable comedy streak since at least LADY IN THE WATER, and here he occasionally tries out some overwritten witty repartee, which is not entirely successful. But I think he does give the three young captives quirks that defy our expectations. Casey (Anya-Taylor Joy from THE WITCH) is sort of the lead, because she’s the school outcast with the troubled (to say the least) background that connects her to the villain. But the other two popular girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), who don’t particularly like Casey at first, are not Mean Girls. Claire inviting non-friend Casey to her birthday party out of pity shows that she has some kind of kindness in her, and she makes jokes, comes up with ideas and gives inspirational talks that make her cool and invaluable in this situation. Marcia is more of a follower and secondary character, but never a jerk.

Obviously we first knew of Shyamalan from THE SIXTH SENSE, so we’ve always know him to be good with young actors. I think this continues what he was doing with THE VISIT, having young characters who are smart and don’t really fit into the standard categories.

Many will be offended by the movie’s fantastical extrapolation of a real mental disorder, and that’s fair. But there’s another weird theme that I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on. We find out over time that Casey, like Kevin, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. In fact she doesn’t seem to have escaped it yet. It’s pretty fucked up for a PG-13 movie, actually, because the not at all graphic flashback showing the bizarre way that an initially likable character lured a child in for molestation is way more disturbing than if it had been done in a more normal way. I’m sorry to say that there have been a few times in my life when people I knew were convicted of sex crimes, and this reminds me of making the mistake of reading about what they did. Sometimes it’s best not to know the strange details of a sick mind.

But obviously that scene is supposed to upset you, so it’s doing its job. The more questionable part has to do with Dennis’s villainous philosophy that people who have been victimized like he was are “pure” and given some sort of power by the experience. In his case, the psychological damage has literally given him a superhuman ability. I’m sure that Shyamalan means this to be an empowering story for abuse survivors, and Casey balances things out because her experience has not made her crazy or evil. Still, I wonder how I would feel about it if I had been through something like that. I might not be happy with ascribing anything positive to such atrocities. Or maybe I really would think it was a way of saying you can’t hurt me, you will only make me stronger? I don’t know.

But I have the luxury of overlooking that, and for the most part this is an effective and at times genuinely scary suspense thriller. I like a precise filmmaker like Shyamalan doing these sorts of mechanics: the careful attempt to trick and manipulate the different personalities, to find the window and the method to run for the door or the weapon or the walkie talkie.

My problem with it is that ultimately it feels a little anti-climactic. It feels about halfway conclusive and halfway “Well, that’s the end of chapter 1!” And for this type of thrill ride I feel like you need an ending with a little more impact. Much has been made of a “twist,” and indeed there is a thing that happens in the movie that’s out-of-left-field and can’t-believe-they-did-that enough that it made me say “WOW” out loud while sitting by myself in the theater. If you know me  you can probly guess that I loved that, but to be clear it’s not really what you’re thinking of when you say “plot twist.” The story is pretty much exactly what the trailer depicts and not a huge amount more.
But it’s a Shyamalan movie through and through, without having to be found footage or have terrible rapping in it like THE VISIT (which I thought was pretty good), so it’s definitely worth watching. He still has something.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, February 6th, 2017 at 11:57 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

20 Responses to “Split”

  1. It’s worth discussing Shyamalan’s cameo, which plays like a mea culpa for his role in Lady in the Water. Literally every other line of dialog aimed at his character underlined what a loser he is. It really felt like “I’M SORRY YOU GUYS PLEASE LIKE ME AGAIN.” It was rather charming, in a way.

    Speaking as someone with a mental illness, albeit not one anywhere near as serious as what Kevin has in this movie thank God, I had a very different reaction from what Vern is supecting. I’m really tired of the subtle, self-congatulatory back-patting that lurks underneath most stories about outcasts and “freaks” and the mentally ill. It’s like all the nerds and unhappy teenagers who got pushed around as kids grew up, got control of the arts, and have spent decades telling stories about how the pain and suffering they’ve experienced really proves how awesome they secretly are. Well, as someone who grew up feeling that way and still suffers the effects: it’s NOT awesome. It sucks. Life is so much less than it could be without this kind of suffering.

    It feels insulting being coddled the way our culture often does, eg sensitive labels such as “differently abled” and the like. SPLIT, to me, felt like Shyamalan viciously and even venomously striking out at the subtext of our modern superhero movie culture, that your suffering and pain make you awesome and that you are actually better off for being alone and an outcast honest for real it’s the happy healthy people you should feel sorry for.

    No. The second you put the standard issue X-Men style speach in the mouth of a villain, it’s obvious how psychotic it is.

    I enjoy a superhero movie as much as anyone, but looking at what they represent I can’t help but feel that we as a culture have lost our damn minds. SPLIT is one of the only movies out there honest enough to call a spade a spade. I loved it.

  2. Vern, when does your no spoilers request expire?

  3. How about people just spell SPOIOLERSSPOILERSSPOLIERS as long as the text fills the “recent commentary”

  4. I thought this was a deeply odd movie, i enjoyed it – not as much as The Visit – but a lot of my enjoyment just comes from how clearly weird M. Night is – you can tell that his films are personal to him but the point he’s trying to make leaves me baffled. I don’t want to be rude but the impression I’m left with is that he’s really quite a dumb guy.

    One thing I thought was not great, in terms of stigmatising mental illness, is that each of Kevin’s ‘good’ personalities are in themselves apparently normal, but the bad ones each have their own mental disorder (the woman one has OCD, the kidnapper guy is a pedophile, hedwig appears to have learning difficulties). That seemed to me like they were layering bad readings onto a premise which is itself pretty contentious.

    I think with the genre you’re gonna get some things that come across as stigmatising, it’s just how these things work, but even with that sort of built-in leeway I felt the film went too far. I’m not sure what it was trying to say. When you present someone as a victim of abuse I think you’ve got to pay that off somehow – I don’t know if they’re gonna leave that for a follow-up or not but to me it felt like we got 2/3 of a story.

    MNS has too distinctive a voice to not be worth watching but I really think Split is a deeply odd, grimy little thing.

  5. I don’t think Shyamalan’s dumb so much as he is naive about the reality of the impact of abuse. He seems more interested in the fantastical elements of stories, but is totally wishy-washy with his themes. For what its worth, friends and loved ones that I know, who have suffered some form of either sexual or physical abuse, do not in any way feel that they have superhuman strength. They feel like a disgusting piece of shit, and have lifetime struggles with identity and confidence and self-loathing.

    The most honest and accurate filmic portrayal of this type of experience I’ve ever seen is Gregg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN.

  6. Assholes have already ruined it all over their ill thought headlines and what not. However it just makes me want to watch it even more.

  7. I enjoyed this movie, even though I thought what it was trying to say seemed dumb. From my perspective, it seemed liked Shyamalan was trying to suggest that the main girl is somehow stronger because of what she went through, but that seems like it’s minimizing the kind of hurt these traumas cause. Also, the music sort of swells when Mr. Split tells the main girl this is the reason why he won’t kill her, which at best was a complete failure of tone, and at worst was supposed to be an endorsement of this belief.

    Most views have focused on the idea that the film minimizes Mr. Split’s mental illness, but I find that reading to be unconvincing. The film is just too out there for me to take it seriously when it comes to the multiple personality thing. This is the first review I’ve read that even explores the idea that maybe suggesting that ultimately it was a good thing the main girl was raped is maybe not that great of a move.

    There are some genuinely effective moments throughout this movie, and I wish it had been better. It just sort of falls apart towards the end. Still, I’m up for SPOILERS

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    Unbreakable Vs Mr. Split: The Battle for Philly

  8. VAGUE SPOILERISHNESS
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    I think your review is right on point, Vern. I agree that the film delivers pretty much exactly what it advertises, and I agree that the ending is a bit anti-climactic. I understand why they ended it the way they did, but it undercuts the payoff of thE film as a film unto itself, where you really need McAvoy to die fantastically, or get carted off to prison with a deranged, smug smile on his face, or you need some other really messed up ending. The film is so harrowing, and McAvoy’s baddie is so darn creepy and (as the film goes on) menacing that it’s hard to look at his final scene as anything other than kind of a whomp-whomp (trombone sound). Really, I think his last scene should have been the final confrontation with the main female protagonist, and then we could just let the coda tell us he’s still at large (vs. that scene of him in the abandoned apartment, which serves really no purpose than to let us know he’s still alive). That last McAvoy scene was weak sauce, should have been left on the cutting room floor. The movie does not deliver a grisly, shocking, or mind-bending enough payoff on its own terms. It feels like they cheat a bit to leave the door open for a sequel.

    As Vern and others have noted, I think Vern is trying to say that people who have suffered are not damaged, but beautiful and resilient. I don’t think that’s a bad sentiment, even if it is a bit corny. I take it to be roughly along the lines of that Eminem song “Beautiful.” Shyamalan is quite hamfisted when it comes to matters of the heart or his deep philosophical mind-bending logic. So, even if it seems like it, I don’t think he’s consciously saying something as nakedly tone deaf as, “Don’t be mad ’cause you got molested. You should be grateful. It’s awesome! You’re beautiful and strong now!” I think McAvoy’s own philosophy may be that trite and blinkered, but I think for Shyamalan’s part, I think he’s just trying to say that people who have suffered can have surprising strength and resilience, and we should not look at them as damaged. Again, a little hamfisted, but what’s so objectionable about it?

  9. Sorry, not “Vern is trying to say” but “Shyamalan is trying to say.” Vern already said what he was trying to say. :)

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    Finally, although I felt like they essentially robbed this film of a satisfying payoff in order to set up the sequel (#thanksmarvel), I couldn’t help but love the “fan service” of the coda scene with the entirely different cast and be a bit geeked out for the sequel. I still think they could have dealt with McAvoy’s character in a more effective way than they did as far as his final scene where he’s checking his wounds in the apartment. It just felt like kind of a jerk-off scene where they could have done something cooler or scarier or creepier. Kind of a missed opportunity. Nevertheless, I’d give the film a solid B on the strength of McAvoy’s performance, the creepy atmosphere, the good deal of suspense and tension, and the fan servicey coda / sequel setup that I can’t help but love.

  11. I think both me and Shoot McKay will agree Raising Cain is the far more stylish and enjoyable “man with multiple personalities including a woman and a child who kidnaps people by knocking them out in a car” movie. I really wish I liked this more, but unfortunately since it’s a Shyamalan joint, I spent the whole movie looking for the “twist” which kept me from fully immersing myself and enjoying it. Then again I did the same thing during The Visit and I was still surprised by the twist there and enjoyed that one alot more – maybe because it had a more satisfying ending and better filmatism? I still think The Village is Shyamalan’s masterpiece because everything about it (cinematography, the gorgeous score, a star-making performance from Bryce Dallas Howard) works so well that the “twist” is really just icing on the cake. Anyway, despite McAvoy’s truly great performance, I felt this one kinda dragged and felt like too much wheel-spinning; 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely the tighter and more entertaining “girl trapped in a basement” movie (until those last 10 minutes of course).

    Speaking of which *SPOILER*, imagine how let down I was that the “twist” had nothing to do with the actual movie itself and was basically a “spoiler” the way Howard the Duck was a “spoiler” at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m honestly not sure if I like where this series is going, but at least we now know that abrupt text crawl at the end of Part 1 was not the end to this story.

  12. Stovepipe – Yeah, feel free to discuss it, just make sure to have a spoiler warning and don’t write anything spoilery in the first part that shows up in the “recent commentary” on the sidebar. Thanks!

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    Also, it’s not that I think Shyamalan is intentionally trying to say, “Thank goodness you were molested as a child.” I just think that the film itself comes dangerously close to that territory by bungling Mr. Split’s monologue at the end. It’s a shame because the first half of this film is pretty good.

  14. Also, why do you guys think this film caught on? And do people still know who Shyamalan is? I remember back when he produced that evil elevator movie. I caught a trailer for it at the beginning of some other movie, and when his name came up as a producer, the entire audience broke into laughter.

    I keep on rooting for him to get his groove back, and he kind of has. But I have a feeling that if Split had come out after Signs, I would have hated it. I think his string of flops makes me appreciate an enjoyable but deeply flawed thriller from him in ways I wouldn’t have been able to back when he was at the top of his game.

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    OH GREAT, ANOTHER FUCKING SUPERHERO CINEMATIC UNIVERSE.

    I liked this movie, but not as much as so many other people seemed to. Maybe I’m just burnt-out on confined-space thrillers (10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, DON’T BREATHE, THE INVITATION probably others), but I thought the kidnapping plot really dragged, and the twist (?) robbed it of a dramatically satisfying ending. By trying to tell a stealth super-villain origin story in the disguise of a kidnapping thriller he ended up with a less-than-satisfying version of both. Maybe I’m just naïve, but I didn’t expect it to get as nuts as it did (mostly in a good way), with McAvoy literally hulking out and climbing the walls. I loved the climactic sequence with McAvoy crawling along the ceiling and busting out the lights. That’s the kind of expert tension and cinematic craft that I miss from Shyamalan. I hope between this and THE VISIT he’s allowed out of the Blumhouse debtors prison and given some more money to play with. Heck of a shame to see a guy go from “the next Spielberg” to a walking punchline, so I’m glad he’s having a comeback.

    Like a lot of other people, the way the film treats trauma, mental illness and sexual abuse made me slightly uncomfortable, although it’s clear Shyamalan means it as a story of empowerment. It’s interesting the way the film spends so much time setting up the climax with Casey and the rifle; flashbacks to her training as be a hunter, being unable to pull the trigger at a critical moment; only for the rifle to be useless and instead it’s the fact that she suffered abuse that saves her. I’m not sure what the film is trying to say there.

    One thing I didn’t pick up on while watching the movie is the implication that the train crash engineered by Mr Glass to create John Unbreakable also killed McAvoy’s dad and thus indirectly created Jack Split. Apparently there is an UNBREAKABLE musical sting when McAvoy laid those flowers down next to the train, but I didn’t notice.

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    I don’t necessarily see the film as making any one definitive statement about trauma, since traumas affected both Kevin and Casey in somewhat different ways. I don’t see the film as romanticizing trauma in any specific Pollyanna type of way. It’s possible to interpret Kevin’s treatment of Casey as simply him identifying with her and liking her inasmuch as he can see that she’s gone through trauma like him, as opposed to it being a grander metaphysical or social commentary-type statement. Further, if there was a metaphysical conclusion to be drawn from UNBREAKABLE, wouldn’t it be that trauma reveals character (and already latent super-hero abilities), as opposed to trauma creating character? Anyway, I know Shyamalan sometimes says stupid, overly ponderous stuff in his interviews (and in his cameos!), but taken the movie on its own terms, I don’t see it or UNBREAKABLE making any single definitive statement on the nature of trauma as far as making people good or bad or strong or work, other than perhaps suggesting that people who have lived through trauma are by definition proven survivors.

    I do agree with Crustacean that the tacked-on UNBREAKABLE connection is a bit of a dicey proposition. I was critical of CLOVERFIELD LANE for a similar move in terms of the …SPOILER-FOR-10-CLOVERFIELD-LANE…ending with the aliens that seemed like a typical JJ move of taking a perfectly good claustrophic psychological potboiler and having to tack on a sci-fi epic broader expanded universe, “the adventure will continue…” ending that completely undercuts the tone and scale of the first 70-80 minutes.

    In this instance with SPLIT, I felt like the UNBREAKABLE expanded universe coda worked pretty well. For me, it served as an effective bridge from SPLIT to UNBREAKABLE that felt somehow plausibly rooted in both films, connecting them as part of a broader Shyamalan Philly mutants universe. Tonally, even though it was a bit less grim and a bit more playful, it wasn’t too cutesy and felt more just like a fun, rug-out-from-under-you pick-me-up of a little postscript. It also worked for me because it was indeed a short and sweet postscript. It wasn’t as though David Dunn suddenly popped in to rescue Casey from Kevin out of f-ing nowhere. SPLIT mostly stands on its own as a self-contained potboiler, and then the postcript just serves to broaden it, panning out into something bigger and–for me–exciting and full of possibilities (and opportunities for Shyamalan to overdo it and burn it to the ground). At the very least, even if they never made a follow-up, I thought it was a cute, crowd-pleasing, tension-resolving, uplifting way to end things after a pretty grim last act.

    All that said, I’m not sure how Kevin works in a broader universe where he’s sharing the screen with Bruce and perhaps other larger than life personalities. This film works because it’s in large part Kevin’s/McAvoy’s film. I’m not saying no one else could have pulled off a memorable interpretation of Kevin, I’m just saying one could very easily have imagined a lesser actor falling flat on his face with this role. I think Shyamalan is only as good as the actor’s he’s working with.

    It will be very difficult to put that Kevin lightning back in the bottle, whether in a follow-up film centering on him or one that attempts to make him the antagonist (or one among many) to a protagonist with near-equal gravitas, such as Bruce’s David Dunn. Part of the appeal with Kevin is that he’s a very strange character you haven’t seen before, but once you’ve hung out with him and seen his shtick for a while, you’ve lost a good deal of the magic, I think. I don’t know if he’s a kind of Captain Jack Sparrow we can keep enjoying, at least without the character becoming a kind of diminished parody of this incarnation. What I think I’m saying is that SPLIT leaves you wanting more of Kevin, but I’m not sure how much more you’ll actually enjoy once you get it.

  17. RBatty, I’d say it caught on because firstly it’s a great little thriller, and because there’s a generation who’ve never seen and/or associated Shyamalan with THE HAPPENING, LADY IN THE WATER and THE LAST AIRBENDER. In fact, any of his films or his trademark twists.

    A younger co-worker raved about it, especially McAvoy’s performance, then totally fucking spoiled the ending for me by saying **SPOILER** “blah blah blah then Bruce Willis appeared as some kind of mysterious hero for like 5 seconds blah blah blah”. I asked her if she’d seen UNBREAKABLE. She’d never heard of it.

  18. Poeface – It’s a fun little thriller, but I’m surprised it’s managed to stay strong for three weeks in a row. As I was leaving the theater, I heard a teenager say to his friend, “Google ‘Mr. Glass.'”

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    Getting upset about the M. Night’s use of painful tragedy to create strength and power is not really warranted considering he just took one of the major origins of virtually every Batman villain and applied it to his own.
    He also might have taken a little inspiration from the end of my favorite Friday movie Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.

    I think M. Night took a little inspiration from the end of Friday the 13th

  20. I literally just got back from seeing this, and I feel like I have to think about it some more before I really know what I think. But I know what I feel – with a few reservations, I rather enjoyed it, and James McAvoy was really good, obviously having fun, shame it only half ends. And a few things have been chasing each other round my mind on the ride home.

    SPOILER SPOILERS SERIOUS SPOILERS etc

    While the post-ending twist, if you can call it that, did genuinely surprise me, it also seemed really clunky. How exactly is this just like Mr SPOILER, as the lady at the counter says?

    The ‘abuse makes you stronger’ thing actually reminded me of Signs (at least up to McAvoy’s speech near the end) – the father regaining his faith because it turns out his wife’s horrible pointless death was just God doing prep work for something good in the future. I know Split doesn’t mention God at all, and maybe if it wasn’t Shyamalan it wouldn’t have occurred to me. But it did, and it felt like it was saying “well, thank heavens she was sexually abused for years because now she can survive this murderer”. I hated it in Signs and it bugged me here, too.

    If I think of this as Shyamalan’s take on a werewolf movie (which was my theory at points, again before McAvoy’s speech), then I think I really like it. I don’t think that’s the movie he thinks he’s making, though.

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