Movie Review: 'Split' (2017)

M. Night Shyamalan’s darkest film to date is also his most densely scripted. James McAvoy stars as a man, whose personality has splintered 23 ways. As his 24th persona prepares to emerge, he randomly kidnaps three teenage girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy).

It is here that “Split” gets off to a rough start. While chilling in its simplistic execution of a disturbingly, swift abduction, “Split” heavily frustrates due to the reaction of its characters, its lead in particular.

When Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) enters the vehicle to begin the kidnapping, the girls in the back seat respond perplexed. They believe he has made an innocent mistake.

Only he has not, and there is still no sense that all of the girls are afraid. Casey (Taylor-Joy) reacts to her impending abduction with tears welling up in her eyes, and a weak attempt to take action. It is a clear case of normalcy bias.

Hope her condition will subside as the movie progresses starts to unravel early on, albeit it never fully dims. Around the halfway mark, it becomes unbearably apparent there is no end in sight.

Casey will only cry, and try to reason with her kidnapper for the entire film. It is this futility that mars a great deal of “Split,” and its overarching potential, as both a thriller, and a character study. 

With a lead character so externally unaffected by the scenario, it is hard to buy into the tension. Were it not for the other girls (Richardson, and Sula), there would be none.

As mentioned earlier, this is a heavy film with heavy subtext, which makes its story one that is exceedingly grim. There are no bright spots.

Shyamalan’s previous films are so intricately woven that it is usually only until the final moments; one can often realize what has truly transpired. As strange, and unexpected as it is, “Split” is a fairly straightforward story. While Shyamalan infuses his usual preternatural undercurrent, it is divulged early on, and there is no really big twist to speak of. This despite much hinting.

The biggest disappointment is that “Split” offers its audience no surprises. As many theories can be derived throughout its run-time, in truth it is all too simple for its own good. As a narrative on people’s fascination with danger, “Split” conducts its most interesting exploration.

As a showcase for the impressive talents of its star, “Split” serves up its best work. James McAvoy runs a gamut of emotions, with a grounded characterization that never leans towards camp. It should be noted that he mainly inhabits, three to four characters throughout the film. “Split” heavily advertised Kevin Crumb’s 23 disparate personalities, when in actuality viewers only see about a quarter of them.

It is not Anya Taylor-Joy’s fault, but the script offers her very little to play. While it is refreshing to have a subtle reaction as part of the equation, it is jolting to see nothing about Casey’s disposition change, and see her react with hardly any horror to the true gravity of her situation. That may be true to life (see: normalcy bias), but it makes for disruptive cinema.

Actresses Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula on the other hand, are given more to do emotionally, and they seize the opportunity. They give “Split,” its most fraught, and intense, sequences. Richardson, and Sula’s performances instill the film with its high stakes, and they never waver.

From the opening scene, they are convincing as close friends, trying to befriend an outsider, who then find themselves thrust into unimaginable terror. Their reactions to everything that follows are dead-on, fearless, and surprisingly poignant. “Split” would not be the haunting film it is, without them.

Shyamalan does manage to break some new ground surrounding DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), as he explores whether a person’s mind is powerful enough to alter them physiologically. In many ways, this theory has a lot in common with Luc Besson’s “Lucy.”

In that movie a woman is able to utilize all of her brain power, to staggering results. A similar theorem is investigated here, without the noise of “Lucy’s” special-effects extravaganza -- a welcomed decision.

In the end, “Split” is not a whole film. It is has facets, which make it compelling, and an ending that promises a much more interesting story to come. Sadly, that ending did not dovetail into the final moments of “Split,” elevating it into something that would have otherwise been pretty special. “Split” is a fractured film, which is hard to assess as a whole one, and that might have been the entire point. Rating: 6/10