M. Night Shyamalan made an impressive debut in 1999 in “The Sixth Sense”, then it’s downhill for him and his movies got worse and worse in his “The Village”, “Lady in the Water”, “The Happening”, “Last Airbender”, “After Earth”, “The Visit”, etc. His latest work, “Split”, is similarly unsatisfying, but it’s lucky to be the number one movie in America when it opened there last weekend.
It starts with the kidnapping of three girls after a birthday party: Casey (Anya Taylor Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Their kidnapper (James McAvoy) is a psycho with an extreme case of split personality having 23 different personas. He imprisons them in a windowless room and we meet his other personas, notably Kevin (the host identity), Dennis (the more dominant one), Patricia (a woman), Barry (a fashionista) and Hedwig (a lisping child.) They talk about the coming of the 24th persona, The Beast, and Dennis says the girls were captured to be fed to The Beast.
The girls are shown trying to escape from their dungeon, but all their attempts are useless and they always get caught by their lunatic abductor. Shyamalan tries to construct the movie like a psychological thriller and there’s little gore or nudity as you would probably expect in a film of this sort.
The problem is you never really relate with all the happenings on screen and very little genuine tension is generated, compared to past movies about kidnapped victims like “The Silence of the Lambs”, “Room”, or even “10 Cloverfield Lane”. The girls are not really that sympathetic, especially Claire and Marcia who act like stupid fools, so you don’t feel your pulse pounding when they’re being threatened.
Casey is given a backstory through a series of flashbacks showing her as an abused child that made her a survivor. There’s a lot of running around underground corridors that are too brightly lit, so these scenes don’t really look atmospherically spooky or nightmarish as they should be.
To help in the exposition, Kevin/Dennis is shown having sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who helps advance the storyline. Since most of Shyamalan’s movies often offer shocking twists before they end, you’d be disappointed that “Split” doesn’t offer any surprise that would give it a fresh or interesting development. The boringga factor is just very high and consistent from beginning to end.
As for the acting, James McAvoy gets a truly challenging role showing off the character’s multiple personalities, a dream role for any actor. It’s a performance that has no restraint or realism as McAvoy obviously enjoys in chewing the scenery and going over the top. But not any of his teen female co-stars can match his showy performance, even if they’re shown in various stages of undress.
Buckley as the shrink gets to deliver a lecture about split personalities (“I’m on to something BIG”), but her Dr. Fletcher is not really treated well in the movie which has no satisfying ending and you feel like you’re cheated. It seems Shyamalan (who appears in a guest role with lines, a bad mistake) is expecting he’d do a sequel, and now that the movie is a hit, the producers might just be willing to bankroll a sequel where we’d be told what happened to McAvoy’s character.