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Split (Movie Review)

Split (Movie Review)
01.17.2017by: Eric Walkuski
5 10

fantastic fest movie review

NOTE: This review originally ran as part of our Fantastic Fest 2016 coverage

PLOT: Three young women are kidnapped by a man who has more than 20 personalities, any one of which could be the death of them.

REVIEW:I'll get this right out in the open. There are two great things about M. Night Shyamalan's latest, SPLIT: James McAvoy's performance, which is very enjoyable to behold, and the twist at the end. Now, the twist - a touch the director is, of course, famous for - is one of those that provides not only an "a-ha!" moment, but also puts everything you just watched into a new context. On the flipside, it's a twist that, if you cut it out of the movie (it comes at the very, very end), you'd still have the same movie... and that movie is just OK. Essentially, SPLIT sincerely needs its last second game-changer to separate it from the pack and ensure you take note of it.

Other than that, SPLIT is a rather routine thriller, one without many genuine thrills. For a frustrating amount of its runtime, the film doesn't do a whole lot with its central premise other than make us witness to a series of ho-hum set pieces that are vaguely interesting without being scary. Shyamalan really does need to lean on the performance of McAvoy, who thanks to the nature of his character actually gives about five separate performances. It's a terrific showcase for the actor, who can play weird very well but doesn't often get the chance to; it's a shame he's not in a movie that's similarly exciting.

Split movie review m night shyamalan james mcavoy anya taylor-joy

SPLIT shoves us into its central conflict almost immediately: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an awkward teenager attending a birthday party, one she doesn't want to be at, one she surely wasn't invited to for any reason other than charity on the birthday girl's father's part. Catching a ride home with said father, Casey and two other girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) are abducted in a parking lot and wake up in captivity in what appears to be a dank cellar. Their kidnapper (McAvoy) is a stern fellow named Dennis who evidently hates germs, but he gives no indication as to why he's brought them there. After some time passes, they see him again - but he's not Dennis anymore; he's now Patricia, a lady with a polite demeanor and sinister smile. It quickly becomes clear that their abductor has dissociative identity disorder, and a bevy of additional personalities are waiting in the wings: one is a flamboyant fashion designer, one is a mincing little child, and one is referred to as "The Beast," which is most likely the very last identity these frightened girls want to meet.

Tagged to this situation are sequences involving the man's psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), who begins to worry that her patient is heading towards dangerous unraveling, as well as flashbacks to Casey's past, specifically a hunting trip she once took with her father and uncle. These passages give us a look at what made Casey such a timid personality, but also give insight into her resolve and ability to stand up to her kidnapper while the other girls wilt away. As both Casey and the shrink try to reason with the more understanding personalities within the man, the countdown to "the beast's" arrival speeds up.

This is all fairly straightforward for Shyamalan, and SPLIT is more or less a traditional thriller. It's McAvoy's performance that elevates the material. Even when things start to take a turn for the goofy (you should watch him get down to a hip hop track), McAvoy's commitment to this insane character is really something. At no point is he anything less than convincing in every one of his guises; though some of his turn is quite over-the-top, it's fully lived-in, and we can tell he's quite galvanized by the opportunity handed to him. Taylor-Joy is good too, offering a strong performance that is accentuated by her incredibly expressive face, but SPLIT is McAvoy's show all the way.

Split movie review m night shyamalan james mcavoy anya taylor-joy

Thing is, SPLIT doesn't quite earn the actor's glorious efforts. If anything, SPLIT surprisingly drags for a good portion, as if just spinning its wheels until the finale. When the climax does arrive, it's disappointingly silly. In ways I can't describe for fear of spoiling the experience, I'll say that "the beast" ends up being a rather unexciting figure, and some of the things we see him do are practically hilarious (not in an intentional way). Strange to me that Shyamalan risks pushing his movie overboard to show us these kooky sights, but maybe it was an effort to salvage the movie from its previously moribund state. (Shyamalan's last film, THE VISIT, did a much better job of balancing bizarre dark humor and startling chills.)

But there is that twist (although now that I think about it, "twist" might not be the right label; it's more of a surprise ending). Coming at the film's tail end, it has a palpable "oh shit!" factor that undeniably thrusts the entire journey into a new light. It will probably be spoiled before the film's January release, sadly, but for now I feel quite happy to know SPLIT, tepid affair that it is, has one really good surprise up its sleeve.

Extra Tidbit: SPLIT opens on January 20th.

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