Split (2016)

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

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Split is noteworthy because it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie, the second in this horror-rebirth portion of his career following 2015’s The Visit.

After a hot start to his career with The Sixth SenseUnbreakableSigns and to some extent even The Village, Shyamalan’s career tailed off as his films became more of a slog to get through with the thrilling twists made much more predictable.  It’s hard to say where he bottomed out, but The Happening, in my opinion, is unwatchable, and I heard more than a few awful things about The Last Airbender and After Earth.

But then he made a small horror film that made back almost 20x its budget before Split  made 14x its budget.

So this is something of a renaissance, but Split is a hybrid between a straight horror film and the types of stories Shyamalan used to tell, the ones steeped in some kind lore.  In those stories characters were always trying to decode something, whether a pestering ghost, the sudden appearance of aliens or the existence of superheroes.

There’s a psychologist in Split, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a character who doesn’t really belong in a movie like this.  Her story is a bridge to what will be the movie’s sequel, a revelation which connects this movie to one of Shyamalan’s early works.  Fletcher works with patients who have multiple personalities, and one of those patients, Barry (James McAvoy), is a man with 23 personalities and who has recently kidnapped three teenaged girls.

We know about the kidnapping, but Fletcher doesn’t, and she won’t for most of the movie’s runtime.  Her keen interest in Barry is unrelated to his recent actions, though these two separate threads will inevitably meet in the third act.

Half of this movie is a tight, creepy, disturbing thriller.  The girls are held prisoner and must work on Barry’s separate personalities to try and escape.  One is a no-nonsense military type named Dennis.  Another, Patricia, is just as twisted but hides behind proper etiquette.  Hedwig is a 9 year old who likes Kanye West whom the girls identify as the weak long amongst the personalities, and Barry is the artist with whom Fletcher believes herself to be talking to during their sessions.

The thriller portion of the story is intense and entertaining despite a few unseemly moments in which the McAvoy character (and the movie itself) insists the girls undress while in captivity.  The other half of the story is much less exciting as it follows Fletcher’s fascination with ‘Barry,’ and her interest in the ways the brain can will something into existence.  Her obsession with her patient seems like a character flaw, particularly as she doesn’t notice what Barry has been up to.

It’s a strange dynamic because we are asked to care about Fletcher’s journey while knowing there is something much more pressing going on all the while.  Fletcher’s research helps enlighten where the other half of the story is headed, but I only found that it acted as a sort of clunky narration that masqueraded as a character drama.  There were no stakes to Fletcher’s journey, while there were immense stakes to the kidnapping storyline.

I’m surprised this film was as well-received as it seems to have been.  One half of the story would certainly appeal to fans of the horror genre, but that other half feels like a Nancy Meyers movie until it isn’t.  It’s hard to imagine audiences putting up with both portions of the story– you know what, it’s like the movie itself had two personalities, so there’s that.

Alright, enough of this film was entertaining and silly (“etcetera”), but the insistence by the McAvoy character to have the under 18 girls undress was completely unnecessary.  It fulfills some kind of genre trope to have almost nude girls shrieking through the halls of a dungeon while pursued by the violent psychopath, but there was no reason within the text for this to be the case.  Sure, one of the man’s personalities had OCD, but you just know this was only written into the script in an effort to sell tickets on sex appeal.

That was my main hang up, because it was disturbing to watch but not in a ‘oh the movie is supposed to be disturbing’ way.  If the movie were really supposed to be disturbing then it wouldn’t end with what feels like a cop out.  Without giving away the details, we are asked to believe the McAvoy character would resist doing something because he has a strange kind of sympathy for another character.  This would be the first time his character, at least within this personality, has expressed any kind of mercy, and the character moment is easy to see right through since the movie exists only to lead to another movie.  It’s the same complaint you hear about many a Marvel movie, with a reduction of stakes and consequences because those superhero movies exist to lead to more superhero movies and to make money.

Still, as what basically amounts to a super-villain origin story, Split can be quite entertaining.  It makes a horror movie out of a story that fits into a broader, non-horror universe.  It’s the same idea brought to certain Marvel and Star Wars movies, to shape the genre around the story rather than the other way around.  That’s how conventional superhero movies become heist movies (Ant Man, Rogue One) or prison escape movies (Thor: Ragnarok) or even comedies (DeadpoolThor: Ragnarok).

Last note… I’m not much of a horror afficianado, so I don’t know all the ins and outs of the genre, but it felt to me like Shyamalan here was borrowing the genre, window-shopping if you will.  I can’t explain exactly why, but because this leads into another movie (and backs right into a previous one), something about Split feels like a deliberate trick.  It’s as if Shyamalan borrowed the genre and its conventions to hook in audiences (plenty of recent cheap horror movies more than make back their money) just so he could transition us into the next movie he’s making, the one he really wanted to direct (2019’s Glass).

Up Next: 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), Devil (2010)

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