This review does not give away Split’s big twist, though the simple act of acknowledging there is a twist at the end could be considered a spoiler in and of itself in which case I have already failed you. Sorry.
Yeah, but is it scary?
In the 12 hours since I saw Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s new chamber drama with a split personality twist, I have heard the above question five different times. Once, it was posed directly to me in a conversation about the movie. The other four times were overheard by me while leaving the theater last night and again this morning at a youth sporting event where bored parents dished about the latest movies they’d seen. The consensus across these admittedly limited interactions seemed to be that Split is either a disappointment or not worth seeing because it’s not scary enough. Such reactions are rarely about the movie itself and instead a reflection of the way the advertising shaped your expectations. Still, when you go in wanting one thing and come out having seen something different it’s natural to feel cheated.
Here’s a tip, at least specific to Split: don’t expect to be scared. Just don’t. A group of teenagers looking for cheap scares at the movie theater will find precious little to work with here. The same goes for couples looking for a date night option which (if you’ll forgive the following cliché) might drive the girl into the guy’s arms out of fear. I heard someone joke that, at best, Split might make you scared to cross the parking lot since that’s where the story-starting abduction occurs, and they weren’t entirely wrong. Split will certainly make you feel uneasy on multiple occasions, but jump out of your seat scared? Not so much.
See, the plot involves a man (James McAvoy) with dissociative identity disorder (or, as we used to call it, multiple personalities) kidnapping three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) from a parking lot and locking them up in an underground room. He only gradually reveals his true intentions (they’re not there to be raped, I can tell you that) as well as the war going on between the 23 different personalities inside his head.
This is both an ingenious and unintentionally hilarious premise for a film, which might be why I have observed multiple people laughing derisively at the trailer in recent months, particularly the parts where McAvoy is in drag when his character is overtaken by a female personality named Patricia or talks like a little kid when his character’s dominant personality of the moment happens to be a 9-year-old named Hedwig. The association of M. Night Shyamalan with all of this also didn’t help. Despite his recent efforts like Devil (which he produced) and The Visit (which he wrote and directed), Shyamalan’s name still inspires considerable ill will thus creating the impression that Split must just be a hack B-movie destined for mockery on podcasts like We Hate Movies and How Did This Get Made?. Surprisingly, though, it is actually one of Shyamalan’s finest works to date, sufficiently self-aware of its own ridiculousness to make us laugh when necessary but so much that it undercuts the entire film.
It all starts off like a 10 Cloverfield Lane clone, telling us everything we need to know about the soon-to-be ladies in peril as economically (i.e, quickly) as possible (Taylor-Joy is the outcast Lu Richardson and Sula were too nice to not invite to a birthday party) before throwing them underground. We watch as they grasp for both information (where are they? what happened to Lu Richardson’s dad? who is this person who took them?) and a way out. This creates a remarkably tense atmosphere, but then the big reveal happens. The girls discover their captor has multiple personalities, several of which are perfectly friendly with them, and they try to use that to their advantage, all the while knowing one of the more threatening personalities could re-emerge at any moment.
And, sure, from that point forward Split often resembles a psychological thriller, the mentally fractured captor pitted against the frantic teenagers. However, there are also long scenes with McAvoy and his increasingly suspicious therapist as well as flashbacks to Taylor-Joy’s troubled childhood, signaling early on that of the three girls she’s the only one who truly matters to the story. More than anything else, the film is really a showcase for McAvoy, who brilliantly navigates from one personality to another, and Taylor-Joy, who was a revelation in last year’s The Witch and proves herself a perfectly capable thriller heroine here. Shyamalan and his production team give McAvoy and Taylor-Joy a solidly executive premise and foreboding atmosphere (special kudos to West Dylan Thordson‘s musical score) and mostly step back to see what they do with it. This results in a film you can’t quite look away from, delighting us with its reliable genre thrills, extraordinary central performances and much-needed ability to occasionally crack a joke.
As for the ending, well, here’s another tip for you: try not to think about the ending, at least while you’re watching the movie. Know that since you’ve decided to watch a M. Night Shyamalan movie you’ve signed up for something which try to pull the rug out from under you at the end. However, Split works better if you simply engage with the story and don’t bother with wondering when the twist will happen and what exactly it will be. I personally found such concerns overly distracting, preventing me from fully appreciating McAvoy’s master class in genre acting.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a scary movie, Split is a disappointment. However, as a tense, psychological thriller designed to showcase the sometimes-overlooked talents of James McAvoy and the promising new talent that is Anya Taylor-Joy, Split is an undeniably entertaining work of genre filmmaking, turning what could so easily have been a laughable B-movie into, at the very least, a perfectly solid one.
What do you think? Did Split scare you silly, and you don’t know what I’m talking about? Could you not stop laughing at it? Or did you find it kind of boring? Let me know in the comments.