AFI Fest Review: ‘Split’ – The Twist Is It’s Predictable
I have always been an M. Night Shyamalan fan. He continued to do what he does in the face of an audience rejecting it. His best films were able to maximize a minimalist aesthetic so that Unbreakable and Signs were the most exciting movies where very little happens. As such I still liked The Happening where he was able to continue that aesthetic. Last year’s The Visit was a terrific return to form, but I’m afraid Split is one of the few Shyamalan films I just did not like.
A man (James McAvoy) kidnaps three girls: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Kept in a basement cell, the trio plot their escape although often disagree about the most effective methods. Meanwhile, the man shows up at his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley)’s office under the name Barry, so I’ll call him that for the duration of this review. Since the title is Split, it shouldn’t be a mystery what he’s seeing Dr. Fletcher for. You could say James McAvoy IS Split!
Split had me for about the first act. I was ready to see a group of girls stand up to their captor and emerge triumphant. The opening is effectively built up, with trademark Shyamalan shots through mirrors and the kidnapping going on uncomfortably long while Claire and Marcia are distracted on their phones. Right away, Casey observes Barry’s neurotic quirks and devises ways for her friends to protect themselves.
I suppose where Split lost me was when it shifted focus to Barry. He could be a captivating antagonist and certainly a bravura performance by McAvoy, but following him this closely robs him of mystery and just plain overestimates how interesting he is. Dr. Fletcher points out how different alters in a multiple personality patient can have different biological properties, and when the film becomes more focused on Barry’s different physical abilities, it just becomes contrived and tedious.
Shyamalan still knows how to use the camera, so the presentation remains effective in as much as we follow the girls’ escape attempts. By the end, though, it’s just dragging on. While Split may be technically more sound than Lady in the Water or The Happening, I’m less likely to revisit it because it’s not as bonkers as casting yourself as the screenwriter who’ll save the world or plants that make the wind turn people crazy.