A Few Personalities Short
A tagline is purely a promotional tool and is not necessarily representative of the movie it is helping to promote, but when a tagline promises that a character has 23 distinct personalities and that the 24th is about to be unleashed, it is reasonable for the audience to expect to see 24 distinct personalities. Unfortunately in Split, the new thriller from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, we only get to see seven or eight of the promised personalities, with the rest reduced to file names on a computer screen. That is a shame, because James McAvoy does so well in distinguishing each personality from the others, it would have been interesting to see how he would portray more.
McAvoy plays Kevin, a young man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who begins the movie by kidnapping three teenage girls and locking them in a basement. He tells them that they are being held as a sacrificial gift for “him.” The girls try to escape, first physically, and then by convincing one of Kevin’s less-dominant personalities into helping them escape the others, but they only find themselves trapped in a labyrinthine maze of hallways and locked doors.
While the girls are trapped, Kevin visits with his therapist, usually as Barry, the fashion designer personality within him. The therapist has been working with Kevin for years and has come to understand the many different identities that live within Kevin and Barry’s behavior leads her to believe that something is amiss.
After the dud that was The Happening in 2008, M. Night Shyamalan went a little out of his comfort zone with The Last Airbender and After Earth, two movies that epically bombed, the latter despite carrying with it the star power of Will Smith. But with his last two films, including Split and 2015’s The Visit—a movie I admit to not yet having seen—it seems that the director is returning to the kinds of movies that made him such a success early on in his career: quiet, mysterious thrillers with a twist like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. And even though his latest films may not be the successes that those earlier films were, it seems he is definitely on the right path towards a comeback.
One of the difficulties all Shyamalan movies face is that the audience is looking for the twist from the get-go, but it seems with Split that the director is learning how to use that anticipation to his advantage. It is clear throughout the entire movie that the director wants us to wonder about where Kevin works as the characters often refer to his job by using pronouns to keep it a mystery. This is most likely where the girls are being held and we in the audience want to know where that is. Once it is revealed, though, it turns out that it is an interesting reveal, it is not much of a twist, nor does it have a major impact on the progress of the story. But maybe this is just the fake twist or reveal, the one he wanted us to focus one while he snuck another one right under our noses.
Outside of the mystery of Kevin’s workplace, there is little suspense about where the story is going and that was my biggest problem with the movie from a dramatic perspective. Even though I liked the way Shyamalan slowly moves his camera from side to side in the same unnerving fashion that worked so well in his earlier films, I never really felt any dread for the characters, nor was I much concerned with their fate. Part of that could be that we know very little about two of the hostages and the third is cold and distant for much of the movie as her backstory is slowly revealed to us. Also, for a scary movie, there were more laughs than scares in the film; some intentional, but most not. The ending certainly straddled the line between scary and ridiculous, and judging by the giggles throughout the advance screening audience, the latter is more prevalent.
And that leads us to the movie’s portrayal of a man with DID. James McAvoy’s performance is very good, allowing us to almost instantly recognize which personality is currently in the light even in scenes when he does not change his look or his clothing; but it is easy to see how mental health advocates would have a problem with how the movie portrays the character as monstrous. I have to imagine that the portrayal becomes even more concerning after the final reveal of the film essentially reduces Kevin to a comic book villain.
As an entertainment, Split is definitely a step up from some of Shyamalan’s previous efforts, but its inconsistency, half-baked characterizations, and lack of much genuine suspense leave it wanting. And it would have been nice to have seen McAvoy get to personify at least a few more of those promised personalities.
Split is rated PG-13 for “disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language.” There are definitely some disturbing images and content that won’t go over well with the squeamish, but for modern horror movie audiences, it will all probably seem tame.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Split.