Film

‘Split’ Might Be Bad And Exploitative, But It Also Tells Us A Lot About M. Night Shyamalan

Sure, he'll always love twists, but he's changed a lot since 'The Sixth Sense'.

This is a spoiler-free review.

Writing about Split is a difficult proposition. Not only is it an M. Night Shyamalan film — so twists and turns make its narrative a spoiler minefield — but it’s also a film that deals with both mental illness and domestic abuse. It’s basically a film destined to get critics in trouble in one form or another. If only it were better, to justify this tip-toeing.

Unfortunately, Split never reaches the giddy heights of The Visit — Shyamalan’s last lo-fi horror jaunt. While individual scenes are occasionally thrilling in the moment, they don’t hold much weight, and it ends with a whimper that suggests the director — whom I’m rooting for in an underdog sort of way, as one of the few filmmakers making original mainstream horror movies — hadn’t really thought much beyond its admittedly nifty high-concept premise.

Double Trouble

The high-concept premise I speak of is Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). It’s a provocative one, and has already drawn ire. Shyamalan has been accused of exploiting a very real condition for a cheap and nasty horror flick and contributing to harmful stigma around the illness. That’s valid criticism, but it could be giving the film too much credit. I found it more tacky than offensive.

Split begins with a young man, Kevin (James McAvoy), kidnapping three girls from a parking lot and locking them up in a basement dungeon. It turns out that Kevin suffers from DID and has 24 personalities (Shyamalan, for his part, at least did some research and didn’t call it schizophrenia; both of his parents are doctors, after all). It’s a number that substantially ups the game on earlier horror incarnations of the disorder such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the latter of which gets several obvious references throughout.

As horror movies go, it is a storytelling crux that holds promise and I’m surprised nobody’s used it to this degree before. Still, in one of the film’s oddly and ill-thought-out quirks, we only see a small collection of the 24 personalities including neat-freak Dennis, the prim governess Patricia, gay fashion designer Barry, and the nine-year-old Hedwig whose childlike crush on the kidnapped Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch) — a young woman whose own troubled past at the hands of an uncle is revealed in flashbacks — may hold the key to the girls’ saviour.

Shyamalan appears to have little to no interest in actually engaging with DID or abuse, of course. Despite a 117-minute runtime, anything approaching insight is thrown out the window. Split’s central concept is more an excuse to watch James McAvoy remind us why he’s such a talent. He is excellent in the role that was once improbably cast with Joaquin Phoenix and obviously won’t get the respect that many horror film performances deserve. With an imposing, hulking appearance, a Professor Xavier-style shaved head and tics and gestures exclusive to each identity, he is the best thing about the movie by far.

Shyamalan: Phase Two

In more ways than one, Split represents a sort of “phase two” of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shyamalan began with a series of films that were box office phenomenons and critical hits including The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Unlike Marvel, which ended their “phase one” with the gargantuan The Avengers, Shyamalan’s career had reached a disappointing plateau of mediocrity with the messy and ugly box office dud After Earth with Will and Jaden Smith. It has a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 11 percent — only just beating the 6 percent garnered by the blatantly whitewashed The Last Airbender. So low were his stocks that studios had stopped using his name to sell his own movies.

The director’s “phase two” as it were has seen him press reboot on his career and revert to lower-budget B-grade shlock horror. Much like Hitchcock did when using the crew of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to make Psycho fast and cheap (and thus allow more artistic freedom), Shyamalan took his own experience in the faster-paced world of television (he directed the pilot of Wayward Pines), used $5 million of his own money, and made The Visit virtually in secret.

The film was an effective and minimal horror thriller about two children who visit their grandparents in the countryside only to discover something’s not right with Nana and Pop Pop. It followed in the well-worn tradition of filmmakers using horror to give their career a kick in the pants, and was his first critical hit in the 13 years since Signs. Split, then, is a continuation of this. It’s another genre effort that’s high in concept and low on financial stakes, and it’s made with Blumhouse (the company behind the Paranormal Activity and Insidious franchises).

It’s an admirable about-face for Shyamalan who had become more famous for making Mark Wahlberg talk to an evil ficus than as an Oscar-nominated writer and director who was once touted as “the next Spielberg”. It’s a brave admission of, if not necessarily guilt, then certainly a falling cache of his artistic brand.

Phase Three?

If the final scene of Split meant anything, it’s possible that Shyamalan is planning something particularly audacious for phase three. The ending, much touted and whispered about (you’ll see why) following its high-profile debut at last year’s Fantastic Fest, certainly points to a newly invigorated director who’s going to use his newfound creativity and artistic freedom, unburdened by overflowing Hollywood budgets, to satiate his own silly whims. Good on him, I say. Whatever my issues with this particular film, it’s nice to see a filmmaker walk out on such a precarious creative plank.

I only hope we can talk about it the next time we get a movie from him. It would be disappointing to not get to talk about something as ridiculous as the ending of Split, but for now my lips are sealed. Hopefully his upcoming Tales from the Crypt reboot and his noted enthusiasm to direct an episode of Stranger Things won’t distract him too much because, while Split fumbles many of the balls it has in the air, it shows a filmmaker whose still got plenty of interesting ideas. He just needs to pay more attention to those than his, admittedly entertaining, famous twists.

Split is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.