It is irritating to see a filmmaker get close to putting something great out there, but still be ultimately undone by script issues. Split has the makings of a very clever and tense psychological thriller. A terrific turn from star James McAvoy certainly deserves plenty of praise. Still, for every new layer and reveal, there is a feeling suggesting how another look at this screenplay could have helped to better workout some of the old-fashioned ideas and configure a better resolve for the characters. Split does well to work in the moment as tense fun, but misses out on nailing what it promises in a better sense.
McAvoy stars as Kevin, a man we quickly learn is beset with 23 different personalities. His dissociative identity disorder has taken a turn for the worse, as he has been compelled to kidnap three female teenagers (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula). There is some mysterious purpose as to why and it is connected to one of Kevin’s personalities, the Beast, being on the verge of emerging for the first time. In the meantime, when not confounding his captors, Kevin goes to his therapist (Betty Buckley) to see what advice she has to offer.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has been working to pull his name up from the bottom. Teaming with Blumhouse Productions, this film and 2015’s The Visit have served as ways to find the director more in check with his abilities. Taking away giant budgets and working in a more limited realm, Shyamalan is certainly game to dig into this pulpy thriller premise with a minimalists’ delight. The AFI Fest screening afforded him the chance to share his decision to get Mike Gioulakis to shoot the film, based off his work on It Follows and work with West Dylan Thordson, based on his work as a composer on HBO’s The Jinx. It’s having a younger, scrappier crew like this and some constrictive locations that provide plenty of promise.
Still, the film feels uniquely like Shyamalan’s, which is not a bad thing, but goes in directions that another draft of this script likely could have realized better. Take the whole kidnapped women plot. Given Shyamalan’s modern sensibilities, he rightfully has these women call into question their position as victims and try to make plans on how to escape. However, Taylor-Joy is the contrarian of the group and for various reasons, she opts away from taking certain steps. The interplay here is neat, but given how the story plays out, there are some pitfalls that miss out on sending a better message and leave an uneasy feeling that doesn’t compliment the film.
Similarly, the film splits its time between the kidnapping scenario and Kevin’s visits with his psychologist. For all the great work we get to see out of McAvoy and Buckley during these sessions, the film ultimately does little to make that worth our time to have watched. Given that Split is 116 minutes (Shyamalan’s longest film yet), one would have to hope that spending this amount of time with various characters would amount to more than just slow-paced reasons to position everything into a certain place, before moving into a more action-heavy climax.
For all its thematic flaws and unsatisfying conclusion though, there is a lot to enjoy in this film’s efficient production and what McAvoy brings to it. From a filmmaking standpoint, Shyamalan continues to excel at setting up what’s to come and accomplishing what is necessary to create an atmosphere. The film is actually less creepy than I expected, but there is a looming sense of dread thanks to the circumstances presented. There may be a mystery presented as to why these women needed to be kidnapped, but given that we always know they are in this situation, moving away from them allowed for a continual threat to feel in place. Split also has a good sense of humor about itself, which brings me to McAvoy.
As an actor, I’ve had no real thoughts either way concerning how capable McAvoy really is. He’s done some strong work in bigger and smaller films and has also starred in some forgettable features. In Split, the man has to bounce around between a variety of different characters and he really pulls it off. Some are inherently funny. Others are strict and threatening. All have unique accents. It requires a lot of commitment from McAvoy and he really goes for it, without letting vanity get in the way of appearing vulnerable or raw.
It is what McAvoy brings to the film that makes Split worth some consideration for those who are curious. Perhaps others will not be as irritated by the narrative shortcomings and thematic issues at play. There is also an argument for how this film treats those with mental disorders, but this a fictional tale rooted in an idea that is hardly making fun of certain groups of people (but feel free to disagree). Regardless, Split is mostly enthralling and quite stylish. Its strong lead performance (and good work from Taylor-Joy and Buckley) helps out quite a bit. Too bad the film doesn’t quite bring all its puzzle pieces together.