Most of the time when I feel compelled to review a film it’s because it was either brilliant and I feel the need to shout about it, or it was just plain awful, and I feel the need to shout about it. With M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film, a psychological thriller with hints at the supernatural I have to say…
What a weird combination of good and bad. It’s nice to remember why we liked Unbreakable and the Sixth Sense and that M. Night can be a good director with clever ideas, but what we have on our hands is a film that shines a light on all the problems with those films too. Let’s get into it:
James McAvoy and the Cast of Many
Three girls are kidnapped by a dangerous looking James McAvoy, two mildly ditsy teenagers and our obvious heroine, Anna Taylor-Joy, with a dark and mysterious past including a loving father who teaches her to hunt, and a fun-loving uncle who… explains a great deal about the distant and haunted look in the heroine’s eyes. McAvoy locks them in a dungeon, holding them for an as-yet undetermined amount of time until “The Beast” arrives.
As you may already be aware, McAvoy is playing a character who’s traumatic life experiences have led his psyche to splinter into twenty-four distinct personalities, the controversial dissociative Identity Disorder and the even bigger controversy about its portrayal in this film.
All I will say on the subject of the controversy – first is that throughout the film there are positive representations of McAvoy’s personalities, and discussions of other non-dangerous DID sufferers. Second, the film talks about DID patients having super-powers, anyone who takes the representation in Split seriously cannot themselves be taken seriously.
While the personalities are not entirely subtle, they do show off an incredible range of characters. From Dennis’s restrained but forceful attitude, the bouncy and awkward nine year old Hedwig, and Patricia’s grace, guile and poise. Each comes with their own collection of ticks, idiosyncrasies, and verbal styles, meaning that every shift is immediately noticeable, and that despite sharing the same face we are delivered complete individuals. It does however, highlight the problem with Shyamalan:
Hey Guys, Look At How Subtle I Am!
How did I never notice it until Split? Is it because I stopped watching M.s’ films some time around The Village? The whole problem with dialogue, direction, sloppy concepts, exposition, and transparent plots and twists ultimately boils down to one thing. Every moment that could be dealt with subtly, everything surreptitious and cleverly obscure, he shines a spotlight so utterly blinding on it that every trace of mystery is obliterated.
As a prime example, my “Aha!” moment came during a scene in which the psychologist is sitting with a self-indulgent director cameo watching CCTV footage outside of her office to help her confirm a suspicion she has about which personality has taken control. She’s knocked over some bins, and is now watching people walk carefully around the pile, but McAvoy walks through. “Well if the OCD guy was in charge then he too would have walked around” proclaims Look I’m In The Movie Too. “Aha!” announces psychologist lady, “A normal person would have gone around, he’s making a show for the camera!”
It also radically undermines the elegance of McAvoy’s performances by having a costume change on hand for him at every moment and the incredible superpower to dress as each personality at Superman in a phonebooth speeds. It shows in a brief moment of beauty when he “unconsciously” adjusts a towel like it’s a shawl to underpin a transition into the Patricia, a moment of brilliance that didn’t need constant wardrobe changes to shine that spotlight and drown it in light.
And just like that, I found myself revisiting every line of dialogue, every flashback, every memory of a Shyamalan film I could bring to mind and I realised that he simply cannot resist telling us how clever and subtle he is. In so doing I also ruined Unbreakable for myself, which is actually a huge shame because I liked that film a lot and now I will never be able to un-hear all the moments where M. Night lost control of his bad habits. More on that another time.
Side note: We mock Shyamalan a lot these days for being a bit bad at pretty much everything and shoehorning plot twists because it’s “his thing”, but I think all of his faults ultimately boil down to an apparent inability to do subtlety. Start with the self-indulgent cameos which he wields like a lump hammer, the reams of dialogue that sound like unnatural exposition.
I found myself wandering afterwards, where was the Shyamalan classic twist? Was it the fact that Anna Taylor-Joy was “one of the broken” and therefor “pure” in the eyes of the Beast? Because that had been set up from minute one, there was no suspense there. Was the twist that the Beast actually had supernatural powers, and the sequel set up? Because that was… just awful. Surely the twist wasn’t the whole thing about him living under a zoo because that reveals nothing about anything. And the Beast having aspects of all the animals is a huge steaming pile of irrelevant nonsense.
Actually a saving grace here. While James McAvoy’s incredible performance serves to highlight the problems with this film, I must give credulity to Anna Taylor-Joy for demonstrating measured restraint in her performance, and the two acting opposite each other was a pleasure to watch. She very deftly adopts a mask of calm that betrays the terror underneath, a desperately calculating mind working under an immensely pressurised situation, so that the moments when she snaps and gives in to the fear it’s very believable.
The character building flashbacks may have been a little heavy handed in developing her story, and the last one or two could have been clipped out with everything that happened therein revealed in the final moments of the film where Spoilers her refusal to go with fun loving uncle and the knowing look in the eyes of the nice policewoman make the story abundantly clear when combined with the self-abuse scars that saved her Spoilers Over, although while I’m talking about the end of the film:
How Not To Set Up A Sequel And Why I’ll Watch It Anyway
Because ultimately this is a good film, it’s actually very good in places and so was Unbreakable all told, not perfect – and the revelations I have come to as a result of watching Split have knocked Unbreakable off my Top 10 films list – but enjoyable, presenting fantastic performances with an interesting premise. The idea of Superpowers coming about organically, without splendour or spectacle, but in the hands of people operating in plain sight without drawing attention to themselves will bind the characters of David Dunn and “The Beast” in the upcoming sequel Glass.
But just watch the scene that sets up this fascinating new project, with the two women in a diner talking loudly about a crazy who went on a killing spree years ago… because the comparisons between Mr Glass and The Beast are so easy! One was a cold and calculating terrorist with a crippling disability that drove him to seek out the invincible, and the other is a fractured personality with a messiah complex and tapped right into the full muscular potential of his body who kidnapped children. I am so glad you were there to point out the obvious link between those two people so we could ominously reveal the unbreakable Dunn sitting behind you as you lean across the counter to lean back with perfect timing!
But it’s a good film! Kind of…
I rather drowned my “review” in a mini-rant about its director, but I think It rather sums up the highs and lows of Split. People are right to say that M. Night has returned to form, but he carries with him all of the blemishes of his more recent past, and they serve to highlight the clunky and expositional dialogue and so forth, but within there are fantastic performances, clever ideas, and some true glimmers of brilliance.