JANUARY 20, 2017
Following The Visit, it seems that working with the small budgets but (far as I know) creative freedom of a Blumhouse production (as opposed to expensive studio gigs where you might be at the whims of people like Will Smith) is a fine fit for M. Night Shyamalan. Split is another winner from the pairing, and continues his creative comeback after a period filled with duds, from Lady in the Water up until After Earth, which I liked for the record, but was a costly money loser, and worse - saw his name removed from the marketing because it had become such a red flag for audiences. Time will tell if he mucks it up again by getting too indulgent, but if that's the case, I'm happy I was able to see him prove he still had it in him, unlike other genre directors who flame out and seemingly never find their groove again, even temporarily.
Split sees him trying something new: containment. It's not as claustrophobic as something like 10 Cloverfield Lane, because we occasionally leave to spend time with a psychiatrist played by the great Betty Buckley, and a few flashbacks to the childhood of Casey, the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy, but he gets to show off precious little of his beloved Philadelphia, and sets 75% of the movie in one of two rooms. Yet, it never gets visually dull - his directorial prowess has never been questionable (it's his screenwriting that sinks him - like Rob Zombie, his lesser efforts probably would have improved if he had a writing partner), and if there ARE any doubters they should be silenced after seeing the film, as he never seems to settle into standard ways of filming these small rooms. David "Panic Room" Fincher and Vincenzo "Cube" Natali would be proud, and I couldn't help but wonder if, after (quite skillfully) dealing with the confines of found footage in Visit, he was eager to get his Spielberg/Hitchcock on again and frame things impressively without having to worry about the camera being a character.
But even if he locked a tripod down in a corner and took a break, the film would still be engaging thanks to James McAvoy, who is given the role of a lifetime with Kevin, who has Dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder - I'm not clued into the psychiatric world enough to know why this changed but I'll assume someone took offense to the old term, as they always do). Kevin has 23 personalities, and McAvoy is able to make each of the ones he shows (I think we only see eight of them throughout the film) a complete character, and while he's usually aided by wardrobe changes, he is able to sell a change occurring with simple gestures and expressions. Night uses the camera wonderfully during these moments, angling things ever so slightly to make McAvoy even appear larger/smaller as necessary. It's the most impressive of its type I've seen since John Lithgow in Raising Cain, and in some ways even more so since he has more roles to play and (minor spoiler) at one point cycles through several in one go. I fully expect that he'll be passed over by the Academy, but if he doesn't win the Saturn Award (since they DO take such films seriously), it'd be a damn crime.
Like Cain (De Palma being on the mind a lot here, thanks to Buckley and showy camera moves), he also has to toe the line between being a hero and a villain, as some identities are good-natured and seemingly want to help the three girls, but he's also the guy holding them hostage in the first place. And we don't know exactly what he has planned for them, but we can be pretty sure they won't like it and it will be another one of his identities doing it. There's a lot going on during any given encounter due to this setup, and I like that Casey is smart enough to understand this early on, and plan her moves carefully. The movie thankfully doesn't waste time on her trying to escape, because we know she won't (the other two girls she's with aren't as intelligent, so we get those minor chase scenes to pepper a little action throughout the film), and it's a delight watching her take on different approaches with each identity as she starts to get a better handle on who is who. Given that the film suggests such a disorder is the direct result of abuse, and both characters were abused as children (Casey's flashbacks spell out the nature of her own trauma, and it's fairly grim stuff for a PG-13 movie), the movie could have gone for broke and triggered her own full blown disorder for a battle of dissociative wits, but thankfully it sticks to just "Casey is smart and thinks things through rather than act impulsively".
That's not to say the movie doesn't go nutty in other areas, however. This being an M. Night joint, it'd be foolish to go in thinking that there wouldn't be a surprise or two. As the billboard tells us, he has 23 personalities and the 24th is about to be unleashed, so a good chunk of the mystery is finding out the exact nature of this 24th personality and how it will differ from the others if and when it appears. I wouldn't dare answer that question for you, but I will say that you should probably see the movie sooner than later, because unlike back in the days of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, we have the internet now, and people seem hellbent on making sure they spoil the film's surprises (one of which has been floating around since September, though MOST people who saw the film then have been cool about keeping it to themselves). At any rate, the answer is a satisfying one.
Unfortunately, not ALL of the film's final scenes are as satisfying. Without getting into spoilers, Casey's arc feels like it's missing a final beat, and I'm baffled why Night chose to end her part of the story the way he did. Not that every little thing needs to be tidied up and closed off, but it's almost like they lopped out her final scene to save it for later, as if Split 2 would be about her instead of McAvoy's character (I'm not saying there will/could/should be a sequel, just saying that I would assume if the money men demanded a followup, it would seem like he'd be the one to follow - same as the Friday the 13th sequels follow Jason instead of the Final Girl). And the final shot is a great moment on its own, but wasn't wholly necessary in a film that's already a bit too long; it's JUST under two hours, and possibly could have been nipped and tucked in a few spots to get it down some. As much as the last shot put a smile on my face in the moment, overall and probably down the road, I think I'd rather that time was spent giving Casey some more closure.
You might be wondering if this is a horror movie, and no, it's not really, but it inches so damn close to that territory I figure it's OK to talk about here. The D.I.D. stuff is unpredictable enough to make it tense as all hell (though it's also funny at times - it's kind of great how a moment that plays as a really freaky scare in the trailer is actually the setup for a legitimately hilarious non sequitur), and with four females being menaced by a very messed up individual in a Blumhouse movie rated PG-13 for violence I don't think it's really a spoiler to say not everyone makes it out alive, but if you go in expecting a horror film (even by M. Night standards, who usually kind of plays in on the borders of horror instead of diving right in) you might walk out disappointed. But if you're a fan of his you should probably know not to expect full-blown horror movie stuff, and you should also join me in thinking this is easily his best film in years (yes, better than The Visit in my opinion, and I liked that one a lot). Can he make it a hat trick with his next one? Let us just forget that unfortunate mid-to-late '00s period? I hope so.
What say you?