Review – Split (2016)

In preparation for Glass, I looked back at the preceding film in its unexpected series, Split. A sleeper hit that was a booming ROI success in its theatrical release, it was regarded then and now as a proper return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, who had few noteworthy films after critically-drubbed misfires like The Last Airbender and After Earth. Being that Venn diagrams of audiences for psychological thrillers and ghost stories probably overlap greatly, this film allowed Shyamalan back into the good graces of many who went crazy for his career early on after The Sixth Sense. Beyond that, it presents an interesting premise that allows James McAvoy┬áthe full-license to prove his considerable acting prowess portraying the multiple identities of a character suffering from dissociative identity disorder. The film’s tangential connections to Unbreakable proved a deep shock at release, but with Glass releasing soon and McAvoy‘s character, Kevin Crumb, a key cast member featured in marketing, stating the connection isn’t so much of a spoiler anymore, which I usually avoid in my reviews. Still, on its own, how does this film fare?


The film begins at the ending of a birthday celebration for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson). She, her friend, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and her dad are trying to figure out what to do with Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who hasn’t been picked up and was invited only as a courtesy of being a classmate. As they get in the car, a man abducts the girls, and they wake up, locked away with no means of escape. This man that kidnaps them is Kevin, who is host to 23 distinct personalities, each uniquely named and running the gamut of temperament, nervous ticks, and gender. Amazingly, even his body’s physiology changes with each, an amazing find by his therapist (Betty Buckley), but beyond this collection of personalities, Kevin warns that another one is coming, and when it does, his fury will not be contained. Throughout the film, we follow the captivity of these girls under the grip of Kevin, who is increasingly losing control of himself to what is coming.


The biggest takeaway from the film is McAvoy, who just shines throughout. This isn’t a pleasant film, by any means, but anytime I see an actor own a performance, it is always enjoyable in its own way. He kills it in the role, and without him wholeheartedly delivering, the film wouldn’t work, so it all hinges on him. While most “characters” he plays in the film are isolated within their own shots, he does have opportunities of quick transition, and these are just incredible to witness, as the camera never cuts away. Just a quick scan of the images in this review, as well as a watch of the trailer, show you that you’re in for a great, varied performance. While he’s never done bad work in my mind, this role just proves how great he can be.


The other main cast member is Anya Taylor-Joy. As the audience’s way through this situation, we come to understand her and experience an emotional arc for her character. Typical heroines in horror films don’t leave as big of a lasting impact beyond the film as she does here, and those eyes of hers express so much. You believe she’s been through a lot already in life, even as she finds herself in a terrible situation. Her character is rooted in issues that are very personal and heinous, and as such, it may prove to be painful for any who relate to her. While some have criticized the film for utilizing these issues as plot device, as well as allegedly portraying mental issues like DID in a negative light, I didn’t come away feeling negatively to any affected. I look forward to seeing Taylor-Joy in more films in the future, as she seems to be an emerging talent.

While horror/thrillers of recent years have incorporated special effects in increasingly elaborate yet largely ineffective ways, Shyamalan looks more to “the good old days” of Hitchcock to craft this film. Connecting it with following along the same vein of Psycho doesn’t feel false, and that “less is more” approach works great here. Of course, that ultimately benefited the film’s box-office as it made a ton on relatively little spent. This entire film shot on a budget that was a fraction of Unbreakable, which came out 16 years prior, and horror/thrillers continue to prove to be hits, there are strengths here that other films could learn from. Cheap jump scares seem to be the default tactic today, and here, such things are replaced by feelings of unease throughout and how our heroine’s hope and determination carry her through all the dread.


I have to be honest though: the film could have benefited from some trimming. While still under two hours, the film could have realized an unflinching grasp on the audience with some scenes either trimmed or excised completely. You’ll never wonder when McAvoy is on, as he rules the screen, but there are flashbacks and extra bits that just feel to go on a bit too long. It doesn’t derail the movie, but with the “less is more” approach, it feels odd that the runtime isn’t shorter itself. While people often fault Shyamalan for the twists and his storytelling, his handling of his films is always competent. While this film features a lot of close-up shots, this story benefits from it, and he always knows where to put the camera. While I missed several of what have been considered his lesser films, I have never faulted his direction on what I’ve seen, and he steers this film effectively.


Content-wise, there is some language in the film, but minimal. It even avoids Hollywood’s token use of one F-word for a PG-13 film, even if it gets as close as it can get to it in one instance. There is some disturbing blood/gore at the end, but it doesn’t feature in extremes like we see in R-rated horror. Sexual content is more alluded to, and while there are moments where the female characters remove their shirts, there is no nudity or sex scenes shown. Lines sound pseudo-religious coming from some of Kevin’s personalities, but it all stems from his warped worldview caused by his past. The film’s look at real-world traumas might open up good discussions for the audience, and tying how Scripture shows how sin affects ourselves and others to it could be beneficial.


All-in-all, Split acts as an unexpected bridge and extension to one of my favorite films, Unbreakable, and while my review doesn’t fully go into how and why, the end result of the film isn’t a film one has to trudge out of obligation to an on-going series. McAvoy makes the entire film a tour-de-force of acting, and while the story is genuinely unsettling to witness, it’s mesmerizing throughout. The journey that Taylor-Joy makes with her character feels unique among female leads in similar films, and the film makes me hopeful that Glass could still utilize her in memorable ways as stories merge there. I’m hopeful after the surprises of this film and Unbreakable that Glass will be a fitting conclusion to the unexpected but appreciated “Eastrail #177 Trilogy”.


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