“Split” (2017): Scattered Yet Whole

M. Night Shyamalan is an auteur. For all the problems many have had with him as a creative voice, the man has made his singular vision known in all his films. When one watches his work, a distinctive voice can be heard raving in throughout. Whether that voice is coherent, consistent or worth watching can be up for debate. With Split, it seems as if – much like the film’s villain played by James McAvoy – there are multiple voices trying to get a word in edgewise. A series of varying voices fighting for “The Light” that range wildly in tone and genre. Needless to say, there isn’t a lot of consistency to be found. What is to be found is a treasure trove of oddities. Many are entertaining. Many are head scratching. All of them rarely seem to keep this story together. Yet, one can’t take their eyes off it.

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I’ll say that what does keep them together is James McAvoy’s performance. Regardless of the clear inconsistencies with the real life condition of Dissociative Identity Disorder (including Betty Buckley‘s proposition that personalities can change you physically), McAvoy gives every persona his all. The way he not only switches up voice and costume but also body language is honestly incredible to watch. McAvoy almost feels like Peter Sellers in terms of extreme dedication to his multitude of characters, giving every ounce of his strength and attention into making every personality as distinct as possible. They’re wide ranging enough to make him everything from intimidating to sympathetic.

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The highlights of these varying characters are probably the tight lipped & pragmatic Dennis and the awkward childish charm of Hedwig. Both display that wide range from McAvoy, particularly in the posture department. They display very firm positions of the whole character, one that desire control and the other that desire to regress to a simpler time respectively. The personalities speak to the character and his damages. Damages that lead to Split‘s ultimate thematic approach that those who are broken are often the strongest. A sort of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” approach to those who have been abused in their past. Some react violently, others – like Anya Taylor-Joy as our protagonist – use their experience to prepare them for tough situations.

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There seems to be a genuine intent with this line of thinking from M. Night. He wants to give the impression that these individuals who have gone through so much end up being tougher on the other side. Which is a concept that’s been explored in his earlier films. Yet… it comes off as a bit half hearted when he’s presenting a mental illness as some sort of superhuman ability. Split wants to have its cake and eat it too in terms of using that illness for genre thrills and using it to shine a light metaphorically on the resourcefulness of those who know pain. While it never quite achieves that balance due to tonal whiplash, it’s at least used as less of a twisty crutch than M. Night’s The Visit, which felt like a desperate move to wrap up his unfunny horror comedy story in an R.L. Stine level obvious and uninteresting fashion while suddenly tagging on supposed emotional resonance. Even when the tonal whiplash occurs to symbolise the varying personalities of McAvoy, it still seems to jump from genre to genre in a way that dilutes the tension of this story. Within the span of this two hour running time, we hop from captive horror to cringe comedy to psychological thriller to abuse drama.

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It’s not like none of those moments aren’t effective. Shyamalan has rarely been a terrible director on a visual level, the objectively awful action sequences of The Last Airbender aside. There’s a craft in those individual scenes that shows his attention to character, space and detail. Yet, it’s never really in service of the tension of this story of these girls being stuck in this place. Rather, it builds the tension of where Split will hop to next in terms of direction. In that way, it’s like a more competent version of The Happening, which had a similar appeal though for more entertaining so-bad-it’s-good nonsensical stabs at an environmentally conscious horror film. Split seems to have more of a scattershot drive that makes it similarly entertaining, yet overall a slightly better constructed exercise in secluded lunacy.

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There’s a tumultuous tug and pull going on that ultimately leaves me on the more positive end with Split. While not quite on the tremendous end of some of Shyamalan’s early work, it’s still probably his best work in quite awhile. While many praised his previous effort The Visit as the start of a potential comeback, I was rather unimpressed with his attempt at a found footage horror comedy. With Split, I’m not even sure if Shyamalan can rise to previous highs. Yet, it still proves his ability to make interesting films. Interesting, audacious and disconcerting films that’ll never quite be forgotten. This is especially the case with the very out of nowhere punctuation mark that denotes the genre shifting to an entirely different level. I won’t spoil it, but it’s something that’ll confuse general audiences but entertain a select few long time fans of Shyamalan’s work. It gives Split yet another fluctuation in direction to close the entire thing on, one that I’m not sure actually works yet can appreciate the bold faced cojones of. Actually sums up Split overall pretty well.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Dissociative Personalities

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