Film Review – Split
From a lonely look, isolated at a party, to memories of a father and brother teaching her to hunt, Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy) is clearly living with the residue of trauma. It stands to reason then, when Casey and two peers, Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are abducted and held together in a makeshift room, complete with beds and a pristine bathroom, there is motivation behind Casey’s hesitation to immediate action for escape. At least that’s how writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has crafted the order of events in Split, with flashback inserts, to coincide with character motivation.
This delivery is not isolated and to show us how that is relevant to theme, the women’s abductor, introduced to us first as Barry (James McAvoy), is revealed to be a man living with 23 different personalities. As is often the case with these sorts of sendups, this mental disorder is the result of trauma. Pop psychology and mental disorders have long been storytelling fodder for suspense and horror film genres. And Shyamalan, who’s shown us repeatedly his love of not just genre storytelling but the pulp concepts that populated episodes of The Twilight Zone and drive-in movies, is readily willing to mine those exploitative tropes. Unfortunately, as can be expected, the result is a mixed bag of a movie.
McAvoy, who’s proven his competency as an actor, is given a smorgasbord of character options for range. As been the increasing trend with Shyamalan’s films there’s a level of humor that makes the occasional moment fun and part of that fun is discovering the McAvoy’s different personalities as they appear. The downturn is that we’re still in a captive women story. Problematic as the plot device commonly is, there’s at least the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy. Sharing half the screen time helps alleviate alongside McAvoy-unhinged this troubling trend of male filmmakers playing in a territory of women’s sexual trauma. Unless you’re Paul Verhoeven, who’s deft touch for satirical exploitation is often bar-none, this might not be the best thread to pull at for a storyteller with nothing to say or add to the conversation beyond a means to derive suspense.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this is, Shyamalan is actually a really good filmmaker, or at least he has the skills and talent to be. His scenes are meticulously constructed. Camera placement, coupled with movement and the pacing of the editing work to the benefit of the thrill of the moment. Make no mistake, Shyamalan can deliver effective suspense. His stories however are muddled with the kinds of contradictions that can overshadow the craftsmanship and artistry that is behind these mixed affairs. It certainly doesn’t help matters when the director himself turns up in a cameo playing a character who expresses an affinity for the restaurant Hooters, listed in the credits as “Hooter’s lover,” which continues to send mixed messages of why this topic of women fighting a male captor is important when again, there’s ultimately nothing the movie has to say on the topic.
The double punch then rests on the fact McAvoy’s displayed range of acting comes from the exploitation of a mental disorder that is presented in the movie by his psychiatrist as being a point of contention for validity in the real world. That would all be fine if the movie actual sought to give that validity an actual legitimacy by again having something to say about the topic. Instead, the movie is working towards something else entirely. Survival can be compelling all on its own and watching the three girls try to navigate the multiple personalities of McAvoy and escape captivity is naturally captivating to a certain degree. After all this lambasting of unethical presentations, there’s an enjoyment to be found in those places where surprise and suspense culminate in the delivery onscreen.
The movie is not without its unique charms, albeit they’re found between otherwise questionable material, but so the story goes for much of the so-called b-movie oeuvre. McAvoy-unhinged is a bit antithetical to the seriousness of the subject matter being mined and is maybe more funny then even the intention of the moments that were supposed to have humor. It would be remiss to say that perhaps there isn’t something here worthy of a viewing. It might not be what was originally sought, and it might just change the perception of the whole thing, or it could just be this is another M. Night Shyamalan movie and all that entails.