Director M. Night Shyamalan made his name with twist-laden Twilight Zone-esque supernatural thrillers such as the Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. These cleverly constructed and visually distinctive films saw him labelled a wunderkind and for a while each new film was greeted with enormous expectation. Unfortunately, his films became progressively worse with thin plots leading to increasingly implausible or anti-climactic twists…and then came his (hopefully) career nadir with the atrocious Lady in the Water. Having seemingly done his penance he returned to something approaching his old form with 2015’s The Visit. His latest effort Split shows that M. Night is still an impressive technician but as a storyteller his judgment is askew.
The creepy scenario of Split sees three teenage girls: the moody outsider Casey (Ana Taylor Joy) and slightly annoying popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) abducted by the strange and apparently unstable Dennis (James McAvoy). Locked in a basement dungeon that looks remarkably like Hannibal Lector’s cell in Silence of the Lambs, the three girls soon discover that Dennis is but one of a multitude of personalities inhabiting this man. While their captor’s personalities vary in their level of hostility they all speak ominously of an approaching and apparently hungry menace known as ‘the Beast’.
Much of the film focuses on the abductor and the manifestations of his different personalities. These vary from extremely dangerous and menacing to quirkily humorous and include an anxious nine-year-old boy, a school ma’amish woman and an extroverted fashion designer. McAvoy does a reasonable job of inhabiting and differentiating these characters making some intimidating and others sympathetic. This character has, however, generated a lot of concern about the way it depicts mental illness and this concern is justified. McAvoy’s character is at times a villain and a dangerous criminal who engages in monstrous behaviour. It could be said, therefore, that this film equates mental illness with violent criminal behaviour. His actions are clearly depicted as the result of a psychiatric condition, Dissociative Identity Disorder, they are not supernatural, extra-terrestrial, the result of inadvertent drug ingestion, hypnosis or science fiction technology. Consequently, the film’s central premise is extremely dubious.
The use of DID as the central plot device also creates narrative problems. With its multitude of encounters between the teens (particularly Casey) and Dennis’s various personalities, the film feels like a collection of fragments rather than a satisfying, fully-formed story. M Night also gives the film an inconsistent tone that leads to clumsily jokey moments at times that should have been serious. Just because the main character experiences a fragmented personality doesn’t mean the film’s tone has to follow suit.
Still, it is important not to ignore the film’s good qualities which include a strong performance from Ana Taylor-Joy. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane, Taylor-Joy convincingly depicts a prisoner frantically trying to understand what has happened to her and how she might escape. Through her character, M Night also weaves an interesting sub-plot about child abuse and resilience.
In addition, the film contains some striking cinematography from Mike Gioulakis who distinguished himself on one of the best horror films of recent years, It Follows.
There are some impressive aspects to Split but they’ve been employed in a very questionable cause.
Nick’s rating: **1/2
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan.
Release date: 26th Jan 2017.
Running time: 117 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show