A Strong Cast Can’t Save Split from M. Night Shyamalan’s Self-indulgence
Director: M. Night Shyamalan/2017
M. Night Shyamalan is a mixed bag as a writer/director. He has made movies that were very, very good (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) and movies that were truly awful (The Happening, The Last Airbender). He’s also made some middling, often divisive movies. Is The Village as bad as it seemed to me? Many people enjoyed it. And what about his last film, The Visit? I gave it a positive review even while realizing what an absurd piece of schlock it was.
My guess is that Split is going to wind up in that middle group in the Shyamalan canon, neither really loved or hated. Split often goes in the right direction, although (as with Shyamalan’s career) there are some precipitous drops.
The basic premise is this: three teenage girls are abducted from from a parking lot by a grim, buttoned down stranger named Dennis (James McAvoy), who locks them away in an underground room. When the girls hear a woman’s voice outside their room they scream for help only to then discover that the woman is the same abductor – and so is Hedwig, a child’s personality in a man’s body. These are just three of the 23 personalities or “alters” who inhabit the body of one man, Kevin, who has Disassociative Identity Disorder. The alters are communicating some pretty alarming things about why the girls are being held captive – let’s just say it involves them being food – and about “The Beast” who is coming.
“Split” is a return to Shyamalan’s early mastery of dread-soaked suspense. It also has outstanding camera work and beautifully framed shots, reminding us why M. Night Shyamalan was considered a wunderkind early in his career.
James McAvoy is a fine actor, and he does an excellent job of making each of the alters distinct beyond their costume changes. One of the personalities, Barry, repeatedly tries to stop the crime that Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig are perpetrating by contacting his therapist, Dr. Karen Chandler (Betty Buckley). Buckley is wonderful in this role. She is warm, insightful, carefully probing her patient’s thoughts while never treating him with anything less than respect. Buckley is so utterly convincing that it almost erases the memory – thank God! – of the atrocious role she was given in The Happening. In that film Shyamalan made a respected actress seem ridiculous. Here Buckley is able to redeem herself, and perhaps Shyamalan gets a bit of redemption by extension.
The three actresses playing the abductees also offer solid performances. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen) is defiant and brave, if over confident. Marcia (Jessica Sula) is Claire’s best friend and follower. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, so good in The Witch) barely knows the other girls. She is quiet, emotionally flat, with a reputation as a moody troublemaker. Casey is at the center of the movie, and flashbacks to her early childhood explain why she is so different from Claire and Marcia (five year old Casey is played by a wonderful young actress, Izzie Leigh Coffey). It’s Casey’s differences that matter in the girls’ desperate bid to survive and escape, as will become increasingly evident.
Split is a return to Shyamalan’s early mastery of dread-soaked suspense. It also has some outstanding camera work and beautifully framed shotes, reminding us why M. Night Shyamalan was considered a wunderkind early in his career. And as is also typical for Shyamalan, there is a good deal of deadpan humor in this horror film.
But, but, but…I have some major grievances with Split. Firstly, I’d like to see movies stop stigmatizing the mentally ill (who are stigmatized enough, thank you very much). How many hundreds of horror and suspense films have been premised on the scariness of those who are “crazy”? How often have movies correlated mental illness and violence when the reality is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent – and most violence is perpetrated by those who are sane? Do we really need to keep using these overripe tropes? M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t need them, as he’s already demonstrated. The Sixth Sense was paranormal horror, Unbreakable was about a man with superpowers, and Signs was about an alien invasion. Great scary movies can be made about things we don’t encounter in “real” life. But Split is the second movie in a row in which the mentally ill have been Shyamalan’s monsters (the murderous “grandparents” in The Visit were escapees from a psychiatric hospital). That’s unfortunate, and damaging to people for whom mental illness is reality and not the stuff of spooky stories.
My other problem with Split is how very Shyamalanian it is (to coin a phrase) – and not in a good way. My companion at the screening said, after the movie was over, “I think M. Night Shyamalan just makes movies for himself.” That makes sense to me, and it’s not a compliment. There is a self-indulgent “I do what I want because I can” quality to Shyamalan’s films – in their heavy reliance on twists, and the way in which he tries to neatly connect every element of the story, tying it up with a bow. At some point that becomes a distracting stunt. Then there’s the humor, which too often feels like inside jokes or winks at the audience. And while Hitchcock’s ego may have been behind his habit of appearing in his own movies, Hitchcock could give M. Night Shyamalan lessons on restraining himself in that department. There are just too many, “Why?” moments in Split, particularly as the film draws to an end. Even though Casey is a resourceful and likable heroine, there’s real cruelty and exploitativeness in the way the female characters are treated. Why? One tiny bit of overacting by an extra almost felt like a racist assault, a “Feets don’t fail me now!” throwback. Why on earth, M. Night? And above all, why did you need to throw in that badly scripted, badly acted, ham-fisted reference to one of your earlier and far superior movies? Did you feel the need, M. Night Shyamalan, to pull that beloved film down to the level of this one? Why, why, why???
That puzzlement is often present when I watch M. Night Shyamalan’s films. He has a great deal of talent, but it’s undisciplined and seems too often be serving his ego rather than his narrative . He’s a relatively young director, still. We can only hope that he finds his way back to film making that is less about showing off his bag of tricks and more about telling a good story.