M. Night Shyamalan has an inconsistent track record, to say the least. He would always be remembered for great films like ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Signs’, ‘ and ‘The Village’, which firmly establish his fame as a supernatural horror/thriller director. But there was also ‘Lady in the Water’, ‘After Earth’, and ‘The Last Airbender’ to make people doubt his skills. Which spectrum does ‘Split’ fall into? It is somewhere in between, not a failure but clearly nowhere near a masterpiece.
The film has an intriguing premise of Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who has 23 personalities. One of his personalities, Dennis, kidnapped three young girls to be sacrificed to a mysterious being called ‘The Beast’, Kevin’s 24th personality. The plot is loosely based on the case of Billy Mulligan, a man with 24 personalities who, after committing robberies, kidnappings, and rapes, admitted as defense that two of his personalities did the crimes.
This role allows McAvoy to truly stretch his range as an actor as he plays the different personalities. Besides Dennis, a control freak with weird fetish and possibly Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, we also get to see him play Patricia, a lady who conspires with Dennis, and Hedwig, a 9-year old with trust issues. While wearing different costumes help distinguish each personality, McAvoy masterfully employ different voices and body language to make each personality uniquely identifiable. However, it was rather disappointing that we only see Dennis half the time.
While McAvoy does his best to play one personality this second and another personality in the next, the transitions are often unintentionally humorous. The audience in the theatre were often laughing when McAvoy shows off a new personality, although the three kidnapped girls were visibly disturbed and scared. The result becomes very unsettling.
The three kidnapped girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), are underdeveloped. While we are supposed to root for their chance at survival, we know too little about them or their personalities to empathize with their predicament. They seem to do their best with their acting, but there is not much room in the screenplay for their characters to develop. There is an attempt to get us to sympathize with Casey by showing her childhood memories through flashbacks, but it felt distant and disjointed. It hurts the thriller experience when we do not care if these girls survive.
Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist, is an interesting and well-acted character who seems to be Dennis’s match but the screenplay often demands her to ramble on expositions and over-explain things. I personally cared more about her survival than any of the girls’.
The cinematography and score of the film were serviceable. The sets and costume are quite impressive as the details help to establish Kevin’s different personalities. There was a surprise at the end about the location where the girls were being held, although the reveal feels insignificant to the plot.
Shyamalan’s specialty is a mind-blowing twist ending. The biggest twist in this film is that the intriguing premise does not have a satisfactory ending. Things were left open-ended, and not in a good way. It was as if they were leaving things open for a sequel which I think should not happen. Instead of wrapping the story nicely, Shyamalan decides to put a very tacked-on reference to his film from 16 years ago, ‘Unbreakable’, which likely leaves most people confused.
Overall, the film is mostly engaging, thanks to McAvoy’s performance. His performance does not hide the fact that the entire film does not develop much from what we see in the trailer. It is worth watching just to see McAvoy play various distinct characters in one film, but there is not much left to enjoy.By Freddy (InCinemas.sg)