This really is only going to have a decent chance of an impact if you go in cold. So don’t read the following if you intend to see the film. It’s pretty grim and frightening with some questionable psychology, but I think worth seeing, if only to discuss, even if your take-home is pure rage.
Now that everyone reading this has seen everything…
Shyamalan has had a rough fifteen years. The last film he made that was widely appreciated was Signs in 2002, thus closing out a trilogy of really tight thrillers, begun with The Sixth Sense and escalated with Unbreakable. Now I personally liked The Village more than Signs, but that was the point a lot of people took a big step back and started saying that his body of work was centred entirely around a series of increasingly bizarre twists. Then he made Lady in the Water, which left everyone cold, and in which he extended a fierce mid-digit to film critics with his Bob Balaban-performed parody of them.
Then he made The Last Airbender which flabbergasted everyone with how bad it was and hurt fans of the TV series right in their souls. That’s very hard to forgive and forget. Then there was The Happening, which played out almost like a mock version of one of his earlier offerings, because nothing could be this purposefully cretinous. Then there was After Earth, in which he pretty much played a puppet for a miserable Will Smith’s Scientology claptrap. It only felt like Shyamalan because nobody was truly believable as a human being. And then there was The Visit, which I haven’t seen, but Bob Chipman’s SCORCHING review of it left little to the imagination, though other fairly well trusted people have assured me it’s good. I will now see The Visit, but only in retrospect of seeing Split, which, while not a return to form did not have me rolling my eyes every few minutes. That’s a step up for him, since 2004.
Let’s start with the weaknesses.
It falls into the trap of taking a little bit of knowledge about psychology and extrapolating a gigantic tableau of occasionally insightful, but often wrong-headed generalisation. Even the mighty Silence of the Lambs did this, and along with Se7en it rekindled humanity’s fascination with combining exotically specific mental illness with ritualistic murder. This has proved repeatedly and deeply upsetting to those suffering from genuine debilitating conditions. Things are hard enough without everybody you meet assuming a dozen things about you that just don’t apply.
For the narrative to proceed the film requires the two superfluous girls to behave in predictable, stupid ways, lingering far too long and ultimately dying for what feels like no real reason.
The conclusion it comes to, the fact that Casey is effectively saved from destruction because of a former traumatic, prolonged and scarring experience (both inside and out) short-changes her survival abilities, her cunning, her logic, reasoning and resolve. In effect it trades her abilities to deal with this lethal enemy in the immediate for a contrived package of faux empathy with only lightly hinted at reasoning on the part of the Horde. I would have been far more impressed if Kevin had let Casey out when she called him forth and she had obligingly blown his head off. That would have felt like everything the rest of the film was leading up to. More predictable, yes, but more satisfying than the ten minutes that follows, which feels superfluous and muddies the waters. But of course, that lack of fatal payoff may pay off in some other way later.
And the strengths. McAvoy’s performance is difficult to put a finger on, because of course he is actually pulling off more separate people than Eddie Murphy in Nutty Professor II: The Klumps. Speaking as someone who has had to act as several different characters in a the same production, I can heartily say that I admire his range, and his manifest inhabiting of each personality, giving them all distinct accents and often very subtle physical affectations. By the end he slaloms between truly pitiful and Robert Carlisle in 28 Weeks Later levels of terrifying. It’s most definitely six kinds of unnerving and since the whole film hinges on this array of fractured minds, this is a big win.
Anya Taylor Joy is also powerfully intense, although this isn’t the standout screen presence of The Witch. I believed her as a person who could survive this, which is why the ultimate decision felt like a cop-out. I’m still very much looking forward to seeing how this talented young woman’s career progresses.
Shyamalan at his best is a cocktail of qualities and traits himself. He has a measure of Hitchcock in there and a slug of Spielberg, and he makes films that are tense and mysterious the first time around and fascinatingly detailed on subsequent viewings. There is no tension in Split the second time because you know the two spare girls are going to die and more precisely when, you know Casey is going to escape and the details come in trying to better parse out the 24 personalities. But this is by no means Shyamalan at his best because it omits that heart that is present in The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village and that ultimately drowned the sensibilities of Lady in the Water. It is, however, tight and interesting to watch, well shot, and definitely memorable.
It was the cameo reveal at the very end that had me crying out “What?!!!” in the cinema. I never do this, as it’s obnoxious and inconsiderate of other people but I went in the space of a few seconds from thinking, “Man, he recycled the James Newton Howard music from an old film hoping nobody would notice” to being more surprised than I can recall in a cinema, and I think I was the only one, because the people around me were making some very puzzled noises.
“What a tweest!”
Either way, for the first time since the Clinton administration I’m very intrigued by what Shyamalan might do next. Haley Joel Osment may be watching his phone right at this moment.