Split - Review: Welcome Back, M. Night Shyamalan

SHARE
share to other networks share to twitter share to facebook

8 / 10

Split - Review: Welcome Back, M

Although the initial 2007 live action incarnation was good, I still rate the original 1986 animated feature as the best Transformers movie (sing it with me..... “You’ve got the touch”). Thinking back on it some more, it was also my surprising childhood introduction to notions of schizophrenia and multiple personalities, a.k.a. the spinning 50faced Quintessons Judges. Many years later, I can even remember being told about the psychological condition and having a cartoon image of them flashing into my head.... and yes, this was way before Dr. Splitz in Captain Simian and the Space Monkeys in the late 90s. Does every generation have a mental disorder explaining cartoon? Anyway, the idea of one being many (DID - Dissociative Identity Disorder) is an idea that’s long fascinated many forms of fiction and now Mr. “let’s twist again” M. Night Shyamalan becomes the latest to utilize it, and in very successful fashion. It’s official, Shyamalan has turned his career around and Split is this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane.

While leaving a teen birthday party, the 3 friends of Claire (Haley Lu Richardson – Edge of Seventeen), Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy – Morgan) and Marcia (Jessica Sula – Skins) are kidnapped by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy – X-Men franchise,; a troubled man with 23 distinct personalities known as The Horde. They must escape before the 24th “Beast” personality emerges to kill them all.

Advertisement

The Cloverfield Lane comparisons are more than a statement of quality as Split replicates many successes of Dan Trachtenberg’s bunker busting thriller such as periods of captivity, claustrophobia and tension punctuated by sharp bursts of release. It also works a rushed introduction very well, skipping the typical early character-building chapters that are instead told throughout the film via memory flashbacks. The quick abduction places the audience within the same state of fear and confusion as the victimized girls, and in these sections, Shyamalan nails the pacing, slowing things right in points of suspense and uncertainty before speeding things up as panic induced escape scheming unfolds. The teen trio has a good dynamic too with Claire as the self-appointed leader, Marcia as the follower and Casey as oddly composed outsider. The three of them reluctantly working on a combined goal makes for nice imagery of Kevin’s identities doing the same. The film is also a lot funnier than many will expect, dealing primarily in dark humor and shock reactions to Kevin’s switching between identities. The undisputed comedy king is his 9-year-old Hedwig persona. McAvoy makes nearly his every line into a laugh, not to mention his dance moves.

click to enlarge

Yet the film’s masterstroke is its bi-polar nature. It’s simultaneously a claustrophobic mystery thriller while running a separate story of exposition focusing on the Kevin and the condition itself via interactions with his therapist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley – Carrie). The latter subtly becomes the more fascinating and delivers a delightfully complex and warped examination of Kevin’s inner workings as a balance of order and chaos between his personalities, that each does not only exist as an entity but can carry jealousy and animosity towards each other or even states of conflict. It also delivers notions of Kevin’s identities being conceived through necessity than desire as his way of dealing with aspects of his reality which all builds towards the idea of The Beast being born to out of a need to show the world what Kevin’s mind is really capable of. Sadly, that ultimately becomes the film’s biggest weak point as said emergence builds towards a more action-thriller climax. There’s some good science fiction and supernatural ideas in the mix over Kevin altering his physical condition by will and thought (“We are what we believe” – Frank Turner approves) but it takes it too far. Everything that precedes it is engaging because it’s presented in a very believable manner and switching things into a more of a creature feature feels very out of place. However there is still some good story work involved as Casey’s childhood hunting flashbacks culminate well in the final showdown and overall it’s another trip down Cloverfield Lane. I wasn’t crazy about that alien fighting ending either but it didn’t spoil the rest of the film for me and it’s the same with Split.

It must also be noted that (as some may expect), this film isn’t James McAvoy playing 20+ different characters (for that, see Sharlto Copley in Hardcore Henry) as only half a dozen feature for anything more than mere moments. That’s absolutely the right choice as it allows those few to feel solid and developed but some may feel they’ve been undersold on the film’s concept. While we’re splitting hairs, although they have a payoff, some of Casey’s flashback scenes do feel more filler than content and one or two could certainly have been cut.

It quickly becomes clear why an actor such as McAvoy would be attracted to playing this role(s). The scope and range of his multiple performances is incredible. He feels like a force of nature on screen from his wild mad eye grinning by stern sedate composure. The girls impress too. Anya Taylor-Joy spends most of the film playing it very cold and closed yet still gets across her thoughts and emotions well. Haley Lu Richardson makes some excellent switches from fear to confidence, and following on from Edge of Seventeen looks like a promising young talent. By contrast, Jessica Sula is the least memorable of the three but by no means bad.

Advertisement

A surprising end link to the Shyamalan back catalogue feels odd but doesn’t do any harm and overall, split sees the director delivering his best film since 2000s Unbreakable by favouring consistent quality rather than betting everything on a twist. If you’re looking for an interesting and thrilling watch, this an ideal choice and despite some jump scares, it is safe for the squeamish. This is no split decision, it’s a clean win.