Three teenage girls are kidnapped by a schizophrenic, Kevin (James McAvoy), and imprisoned in his underground lair. While trapped, they siphon clues from Kevin’s multiple personalities in the hope of manipulating him into helping them escape.
M. Night Shyamalan is famed for crafting cunning, complex mysteries which mislead viewers before unveiling bombshell truths via twists at the end. To some though, Shyamalan is nothing but a sham, whose multifarious stories are a disorder of sequences with twists so jarring, it makes the plots appear more interesting than they actually are. However he is perceived, Shyamalan’s reputation undoubtedly proceeds him. Even his most extravagant failures are, in a way, more audacious than any of the affable blockbusters that saturate our multiplexes (ending a film with a child getting pelted in old man shit can’t sit too well with financiers let alone most audiences). But, while not quite the John Waters/ enfant terrible of horror, Shyamalan’s latest has a strong enough concept which should ensure a sufficient return to form following a decade plus of dwindling duds.
Pessimists may still expect a new M. Night Shyamalan feature to be rather tortuous. Judging by Split’s convoluted concept and bewildering (but brilliant) trailer, it could very well be, but thankfully, Split is a surprisingly straightforward and (initially) taut, psycho thriller which flits back and forth into time via sub-plots and alter-egos while remaining constantly vibrant, conniving and fun. Sadly though, Split is sometimes dotted with blemishes and inconsistencies, the likes of which crippled Shyamalan’s previous features following The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Hackneyed philosophies, inappropriate humour and an odd sense of social detachment detract from what is otherwise an entertaining jaunt, and there isn’t much of a mystery beneath its snazzy/sometimes slightly clinical surface.
McAvoy portrays Kevin (and co) as a Scooby Doo villain with maniacal glee and a glint in his eye which adorns the scrappy plot-line. The story then sizzles into a seedy De Palma Hitchcock style homage, more so than the type of more serious Silence of the Lambs and Se7en style thrillers which flourished throughout the 1990s. Shyamalan spices serener scenes with a slightly more delicate edge, suggesting the story and characters could snap at any moment. Kevin also harbours a possible supernatural presence, which manifests off screen, but is a mostly dormant personality he refers to as “The Beast”: a construct which isn’t a 24th identity but a fantasy – according to Dr Fletcher or “sentient creature who represents the highest form of human evolution”. This is suggested but not embellished to become a primary plot drive. Instead, Split focuses on the girls, their predicament and the manners in which they attempt to escape and manipulate Kevin into releasing them.
Anya Taylor-Joy shines as main heroin Casey: a dented Emo from a troubled upbringing who empathises with Kevin while overcoming her fears to do battle with him. Fellow prisoners Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are vacuous schleps, unsullied by the insecurities which provide Casey with depth. Despite their defects (or lack their of) Marcia and Claire are well performed by Sula and Richardson, while Betty Buckley (Miss Collins from Carrie) is also decent as the doting Dr Fletcher, who relays her theories on schizophrenic via Skype for an online lecture (and to the audience) to enlighten them (and us) about the nature of Kevin’s disorder.
Creepy moments coupled with corny comedy and cheesy faux pas’ lighten the tension while melodramatic monologues and cheesy philosophies, which are supposed to inform, provoke laughter by being preachy and conceited. Some scenes terrify: one, involving lights being smashed along a corridor, recalls the opening of last years Lights Out, but Shyamalan can’t quite conjure an appropriate atmosphere for his horror to unravel, opting to bask some scenes in a superficial light which massively reduces tension and realism. After years of rolling out slipshod efforts, M. Night finally provides a schlocky, pop, psycho horror/ part return to form. Split is snazzy and fun, but sadly no more than that. The story sometimes veers into brilliance, before bouncing back into banality, and goes on for five minutes too long with a jimmied in “twist” so ridiculous and shoe-horned, it undoes a lot of the good work which went on before it.
Words: Daniel Goodwin (@privateutopias)