This week’s installment will focus on the new work by the highly debated filmmaker, M. Night Shyamalan. Renowned for his earlier films, his career hit a hard down turn with his last few releases. I dive into whether this trend continues or whether he has returned to his golden boy days. This is my Sunday with… Split!
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Run Time: 117 minutes
Starring: James McAvoy
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Robs Score: 8.5/10
“The damaged are more evolved.” – The Beast
WARNING: SPOILERS WITHIN
Claire, Marcia, and Casey are three students from the same art class. Claire and Marcia are good friends, however Casey is a loner. The three girls are wrapping up at a party when Casey is offered a ride home by Claire’s father. The three girls get in the car and wait for the father to get in the driver’s seat. The door opens and in sits…someone else. The girls tell the man to get out when he turns around and sprays them in the face with something that knocks them out. Cassie, sitting in the front seat next to him, attempts to open the door and flee when she is sprayed also. The three girls wake up in a locked room. Their kidnapper enters the room and introduces himself as Dennis. As time goes on the girls hear other voices outside the door, one sounding like a woman and another as a child. Finally the door opens again and it is…the same man, but dressed like a woman, her name is Patricia. It is becoming clear that their abductor has an identity disorder. Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Fletcher, whom is a psychiatrist, actually works with Kevin, the real name of the man with this disorder. The identity she most associates with is an artist named Barry. Barry has been sending the doctors emails at all hours of the night requesting meetings, and then plays everything off as if nothing happened. After several of these encounters, Dr. Fletcher realizes that Barry has been over taken by Dennis and Patricia as the dominant personality. Dr. Fletcher now directs her questions to Dennis and he begins talking about his child hood, and this new personality called “The Beast”. The doctor fears Kevin is doing something horrible, but can she stop him in time, or are the kidnaped girls going to be the first sacrifices to The Beast?
In so many words, Split was the horror/psychological/monster thriller that 2017 deserved to kick off with. Especially when compared to last weeks The Bye Bye Man, Split demonstrated an original idea for a movie carried out the way the director wanted. Split is a return to his early days for Shyamalan, a director who most wrote off. He has become better known for his lackluster “Shyamalan Twists” as of late, but this venture returns him to his place as a solid story teller, and someone who can capture real human emotions in outlandish scenarios. The film is helped by an absolutely outstanding performance from James McAvoy (which I will dig deeper into later on.), as well as an absolutely amazing ending. Split and the main character there-in were originally intended to be used in Unbreakable (coincidentally my favorite Shyamalan film), however his inclusion altered the pacing of the original film and was thus scrapped. This was a brilliant decision because instead of a half neutered version of Kevin and his personalities we got this complete thought out story, a decision many directors may not have had the foresight for. This film also beautifully sets the stage for the future.
As with most films, Split was not free of issues. At just under two hours long the film was engrossing, but it did seem to drag at certain points. Much time was spent describing the ability of Kevin’s other personalities to take on different physical attributes, that throughout the entire movie we could not wait to see what he has cooked up for the beast. The build up for the beast was great, however when it is finally time for the audience to see him he is just McAvoy without a shirt on. I absolutely understand the decision to do this instead of having him turn into an actual monster, it could have gotten cartoony very quickly and possibly hurt the film, but a few modifications would have added to this final delivery. Another aspect I would have loved to see expanded on a little more where Kevin’s other personalities. The film focuses on 5 of them and some of the others are seen in a video diary, but I would have loved to see traces or rooms for the rest of them. This isn’t as much an issue as it is me wanting to be more immersed in this character. I also have to say that unless you are well acquainted with Shyamalan’s previous work you may not pick up on all of the nuances of this film. Overall these “issues” are really nothing but a drop in the bucket of an otherwise really good film.
As with most of Shyamalan’s work, this film has controversy surrounding it. Many of those in the mental health profession have spoken out against the portrayal of people who suffer from DID (dissociative identity disorder). Many feel that the portrayal of Kevin only furthers the stereotype that people who suffer from DID are dangerous or violent at their core. This is a dangerous misconception that the DID community has vehemently and rightfully so, fought against. Numerous people with DID spoke out against the notion that having multiple personalities is a dangerous or scary thing. What this comes down to is that the community felt this film was being released and promoted at their expense. Even the ending, which admittedly I really enjoyed, went to further their claims because Kevin becomes The Beast and essentially becomes a super villain. I can fully understand and appreciate the dissatisfaction of the DID community, however I personally viewed this film as entertainment, and would not take a fictitious horror rendering of a disorder to generalize an entire or even individual member of a group. Depending on the mind set you go into this film with could really sway your overall opinion of it.
Enough with the negativity now and let me gush for a few paragraphs over this movie! I really felt Split was a return to form for Shyamalan. So much was done right in this film starting with the actual story. While not an accurate description of the disorder, the story telling is magnificent. Seeing Kevin and his personalities from several different view points, including his hostages, his shrink and even himself helps the audience really understand the internal battle he is going through. I personally thought it was beautiful how his identities were described inside his head as all sitting in a room waiting for “the light” to shine on them. This was a simple yet extremely effective way of letting the viewer gain insight into his mind. It was little details like this that really help the movie shine, and it is littered with them. The importance of the train station hearkened back to Unbreakable and also perfectly set up the surprise ending. The actual traits of The Beast show a wonderful attention to detail, as well. The Beast has hardened skin, can climb walls, run fast, can squeeze people to death, and even eats his hostages. All of this on first sight can be viewed as odd, random “powers” of this personality. However, when it is revealed he has been living in the underbelly of the Philadelphia Zoo all of this randomness comes together as he has taken on the attributes of the animals he has been encountering almost every day. The details here will have you thinking long after the film is over, and that to me is an aspect of a successful film. It was this attention to detail that really helped the viewer feels the uniqueness and completeness of Shyamalan’s vision here.
Split also shines because of Shyamalan’s skill at writing deep characters. When we look at his filmography, why were his early films such hits? The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all hits, not only because of their originality, but because of his ability to capture raw human emotion. Split is a throwback to this approach. As mentioned previously, I thought it was masterful and insightful how Kevin’s disorder was described, however the work he does with Casey is just as brilliant. We know just by looking at the surface that Cassie has a traumatic backstory but we are given insight into it slowly. The flashbacks begin happily, but the audience can feel the tension building. As the flashbacks conclude we are given the horror of her origin and as an audience member we are more and more uneasy and uncomfortable the deeper down this rabbit hole we go. We can feel for and relate to her and that makes her a very successful character. It can be argued that a film based on Cassie could have been as effective as the route Shyamalan took.
The “Shyamalan Twist” has become a phrase that describes an unusual and in some instances outrageous twist in a film. In his early days these were original ideas that the audience loved, however in his later films they became a “shock factor” move that left audiences scratching their heads. Split has two “twists” that really help propel the film. The first came during the climax. The Beast has Cassie cornered, but when he sees her self-harm he doesn’t pursue her anymore because he realizes they are both “damaged” and thus better evolved. What could have been a major “cop-out” was instead a brilliant way to bring this film to a close. It demonstrates The Beast’s overall message that through turmoil we become better. The second, of course, was the after credit “holy-shit” scene with David Dunn (Bruce Willis). Both scenes only enhanced the film, and once again showed that Shyamalan still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
I thoroughly enjoyed Split, but it was the after credit scene that made me love this one. In a world where we are dominated by DC and Marvel films, we have grown numb to the typical superhero film. We know in almost all cases the hero will win and the villain (aside from the Joker) really doesn’t stand a chance. What excited me most about the end of Split were the possibilities. Both the story of David Dunn, from Unbreakable, and Kevin were wonderfully told “origin” stories that spoke to the viewer on a horror/ thriller level. The idea to cross these two characters over really never occurred to me and thus knocked me out of my seat when I saw it. Also the idea of a horror “super-hero” universe is very exciting to me. For the first time in a while I am actually excited for the next Shyamalan film and am intrigued with how it will come together. I know some people who did not like the connection, but for me it really worked and has me ready for the future.
Split has some really great performances in it, obviously being led by James McAvoy. I cannot say enough about how impressive his portrayal of Kevin and his personalities were. It is hard enough to deliver one outstanding performance, but here McAvoy delivered five, giving each character their own unique voice and character that fully gave the viewer an insight into their personality without giving too much detail. This film was dependent upon the performance and here it was one of a kind. Anya Taylor-Joy played Cassie and was once again electric. My first experience with her was in my favorite film of last year The VVitch. She was dynamite in that and continues that trend in Split. She is damaged, but brave and her performance was equal to that of McAvoy which was no easy task.
As of this week, Split has made over $144 million dollars, and has been number one at the box office for three weeks straight, despite big franchises such as XXX, Resident Evil, and The Ring competing with it. Split has also gained almost unanimous positive praise. Split is a force that sports both an amazing story and amazing performances. It is proving to be and rightfully so a renaissance for a director many people have turned their backs on. Split is a must see.
(Rob Texter – @GrundyXIII)