Monday, January 23, 2017

"Split" Review: Split's Many Hidden Layers Evolves Into Something Unexpectedly Remarkable

M. Night Shyamalan has been a running joke in film circles for over a decade now. It's been so long since the famed filmmaker has made anything anyone has cared about that most seem to forget just how brilliant his breakout film The Sixth Sense actually was. Slowly though he has been forging a comeback as evidenced by the little horror gem The Visit from 2015 which was one of the best horror films released that year. But it wasn't big enough for many to notice (even those who liked it) that it was in fact a Shyamalan directed film (not one that he simply wrote like Devil). With Split however, the first film in a long time that hasn't shied away from the fact that it is a Shyamalan film, many critics and naysayers might find themselves a little shell shocked when they discover that it is actually pretty darn good. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 56 min
Studio: Universal Pictures
Release Date: January 20, 2017

Loves:  Being tricked as opposed to being deceived
Likes: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, The Visit
Neutral: Signs, Devil, After Earth
Hates: The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Village, The Last Airbender
Trend setter?: Split has the potential to change the way certain film genres are put together in the future (sorry for being vague, but you will understand after you see it)

Denis informs Casey about her importance to the forthcoming ritual.

Kevin (James McAvoy) suffers from a mental disorder called DID or Dissociative Identity Disorder where after a traumatic event in his life has forced him to form multiple identities in his head each with their own distinct speech patterns, sex, ethnicities, ages and more importantly beliefs. Kevin has a total of 23 unique identities that each take turns coming into the light (referencing the time they have control over Kevin) but there are a few that have been deceitful to the others who have been taking more time in the light preparing for the arrival an as yet unknown 24th identity called The Beast which they describe as being an evolution of the human form.

In order to prepare for the arrival of The Beast the three most dominant identities including Denis, a very neat and organized man with severe OCD issues, Patricia who acts as a sort of mother figure to the other identities but is extremely rigid in her beliefs and Hedwig a nine year old boy who still believes kissing a girl can get them pregnant have kidnapped three teenage girls whom are to be sacrificed in the ritual in what they are told will be a very unpleasant manner. Two of the girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are a couple of sheltered rich type girls who aren't used to being told what to do while their estranged friend Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is much more street smart and understands the kind of trouble they are in and might be the only chance they have to survive.

Patricia attempts to nurture and comfort the girls but is not to be underestimated

The premise behind Split isn't exactly a novel one. Using multiple personality disorders has been a hallmark of horror films for a very long time and why not? The disorder itself is the perfect setup for throwing the audience off at any and every step along the way and the writer/director can totally get away with it. "How could he have done that?" or "Only a girl would do something like that" can be answered by simply saying whatever personality that fits the profile was responsible. It's lazy for sure but can be effective if used correctly.This also seems like the perfect tool for someone like Shyamalan who loves stuffing his films with secrets and twists in order to manipulate his audience the whole way only to pull the rug out from under them at the last second.

That is perhaps Shyamalan's greatest achievement with Split, turning the audience's expectations on their head and giving them exactly what they never could have twist at all! Now that in and of itself is sort of misleading as there are certainly a moment here and there were something unexpected happens but it by no means is one of those moments where the entire movie suddenly becomes null and void since everything we were led to believe doesn't matter anymore. In fact, the reveal we do get only strengthens everything that came before and allows us to see it all from a different perspective. It's clever writing and directing without coming off as pretentious, something Shyamalan often times is guilty of (he does still find a way to put himself in his own movie though...sigh).

Claire and Marcia try to find a way to escape.

But none of anything that Shyamalan did behind the camera would have mattered if he couldn't sell this crazy idea of a man with so many different and distinct personalities. There are so many moments over the course of the film where the whole thing could have fallen off the track such as when every time Kevin changes personalities he seems to magically change clothes as well in what seems like an instant or how over the top some of these identities can be, especially Hedwig who had the most potential to derail all the tension built up by the other identities. What holds it all together though isn't the writing but by the many faces/performances of James McAvoy who takes the film by the balls and owns every second he is on screen.

McAvoy has always been a strong actor, even in films that weren't necessarily all that great. But here he is given every actors wet dream; full freedom to cut loose on a character who must frequently change not only their personality but their mannerisms, way of speaking and making the audience believe each one is their own individual often times on the fly. Early on when the switching begins as the kidnapped girls meet each one back to back they reflect the audiences reaction which is a mixture of disbelief and wonderment but even though we chuckle at first it is mostly out of feeling uneasy instead of ridicule. McAvoy avoids playing these larger than life character types over the top and keeps each grounded in their own constructed realities which only strengthens the notion that these are real individual people and not just one guy doing voices. By the end the audience no longer views Kevin as a man with DID but instead sees Denis, Patricia, Hedwig and the others who pop up as complete characters which is a remarkable feat for any actor and McAvoy nails it.

Hedwig is 9 years old and likes to hang out with the girls when Denis and Patricia are away.

He isn't alone however as this is probably one of the best ensemble casts that Shyamalan has ever assembled. While Richardson and Sula are fine in their roles it is Taylor-Joy as Casey who is able to match McAvoy's screen dominance nearly beat for beat. She is given the thankless task of being the captive victim fighting to survive but somehow manages to turn such a vanilla character into someone we genuinely care about. The same goes for Betty Buckley as Kevin's Psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher whom we know will eventually unravel the mystery of Kevin's odd behavior but also shows a genuine love and adoration for her patient. This is hands down the best acting you have ever seen in a Shyamalan movie which is something of a shock considering how infamous the filmmaker is for taking good actors and making them worse.

There is a lot more going on in Split than what I have eluded to here despite the obvious lack of red herrings usually strewn throughout Shyamalan's films. This is probably the most straight forward film of his career actually and by ditching all the self righteous themes and stepping away from trying to imbue upon his audience that they are seeing something truly important (seriously, movies are art but they don't save the world) he lets the story to evolve without any extra unnecessary embellishments. McAvoy's performance and the seemingly simple mystery leading up to the finale is enough to keep the audience's interest from beginning to end and when they do get to that end they might just find themselves split on whether this is Shyamalan's greatest twist or his greatest trick.


This entire film was like a series of juggling acts going on simultaneously, each juggling a dozen pieces which if dropped could have seriously damaged the entire production. Between Shyamalan's confident direction (minus the God complex), a trio of fantastic performances led by a superbly spellbinding James McAvoy and a story that subtlety reveals itself to be not just an evolution of Shyamalan's tried and true twist formula but an evolution for his struggling career, Split is a remarkable bit of filmmaking that just might revitalize audience's interest in the notoriously recluse filmmaker again.


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