(Originally posted 28th January 2017 - major spoilers)
Having seen Shyamalan start moving back in the right direction with The Visit, hopes were tentatively high for Split. Sure enough, this is a Shyamalan film through and through. We've got reflections - at one point McAvoy is talking to himself as two different characters while reflected in two separate mirrors in the same shot. That's Shyamalan porn right there. I can't believe he managed to resist getting the guy to break a mirror so that we would he see him reflected in the many shards. Because he's broken, geddit? Apparently that's too hack even for Shyamalan.
Most annoyingly though, M. Night's predilection for spirituality also raises its ugly head, with this film centring around how belief can change you. And I mean actually physically change you. As in from a man to a woman or a human to a beast or a non-diabetic to a diabetic. Definitely some good potential here for the power of mind over the body, which is indeed a pretty fascinating and relatively unexplored phenomenon, but here it all gets taken just a little bit too far.
We discussed during our Unbreakable episode how that film treads a delicate balance of presenting a superhero type story in a realistic world and how the juxtaposition of that created something fresh and interesting. We also mentioned how there was a line that was not crossed in Unbreakable in terms of how the supernatural elements were expressed. The obvious example being when the son is threatening to shoot David Dunn. We don't actually see him getting shot and have to be directly confronted with what that would tell us. Unfortunately, Split not only crosses that line but bleeds all over it on the way.
The film is compelling in many ways and it's certainly nicely shot, with Shyamalan's preference for deliberate misframing and dutch angles just about being justified. The tense thriller element of the story always feels a little forced though and the denouement is dragged out as it stops being about the girls and becomes about McAvoy's character. The flashback scenes that give us the background of Casey's character are far too long and drawn out to justify what little they add to the story. She's damaged, we get it.
McAvoy throws himself into the role gamely but ultimately feels miscast. He is perhaps too much of an everyman to be able to play the chameleon role and I think casting a relative unknown would have helped to aid the illusion. His performance also strays far too much into comedy. I'm pretty sure this was deliberate but it really unsettled the tone of the film, and not in a good way. It just felt imbalanced. Betty Buckley struggles with some extremely exposition heavy dialogue and feels out of her depth in general. And that's a shame because the character background information could have been incorporated by showing McAvoy's character telling his own story, perhaps even in those same scenes with Buckley. It's a therapy session, let the patient be the one who's talking. We even have a video diary element that could have been used for this.
The teen girls are a bit too generic teen girls for a film that should be rising above the usual teen horror shite. They do at least have distinct characters and they look different enough that you can actually tell them apart, but that's about all you get and once we establish that Casey is the one to watch, the other two get forgotten about pretty quickly and just become classic murder fodder. I want to try and say that Shyamalan was setting up the classic teen horror idea before giving us the old switcheroo and making it all about the villain, but even if that is the case, you still end up with a badly structured film.
Maybe this is all deliberate. The film itself is confused about what it is: cliché teen horror or complex psychological thriller. Slasher film or dark comedy. Stand alone character study or an instalment of a superhero franchise. The film has a split personality. Oh my god, I get it! Shyamalan, you're a god damn genius.
Ultimately flawed but still with lots of potential. Just like M. Night Shyamalan.
We did a whole series on Shyamalan and started with Unbreakable, which you can listen to here:
And of course the whole back catalogue is on iTunes: