Okay, okay I know. In my last article, I said I had it on good faith from critics whose opinions I sincerely trust that M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological thriller. SPLIT, is a solid return to form from one of the most wildly uneven auteurs working in film today.
Creator of a smashing debut as writer/director of multiple award nominee THE SIXTH SENSE. Mr. S. (for brevities sake) was a poster boy of the ole’ TOO MUCH, TOO SOON Hollywood cliché. While his next few films continued to earn profits (diminishing with each project), his reputation was taking major bashing from critics and eventually audiences, to the point of becoming a scapegoat of the industry. Films like LADY IN THE WATER, THE VILLAGE and, God help me, his most recent incoherent W.T.F.?! THE VISIT, (what the hell was that supposed to be, a black comedy, a failed Hitchcock homage? To me it was a horribly overrated “dirty diaper in the face”).
Well Mr. S. has brought us yet another cinematic curiosity, that title is a perfectly honest reactionary label to my feelings regarding its effectiveness as a thriller/horror/cautionary tale – SPLIT. Now many folks have given this wildly uneven multi-genre “creative rehab” piece an enthusiastic (far more than actually earned) slap on the back, “THAT’S THE CREATIVE GENIUS I USED TO KNOW” baffling response to the film itself, as with most of Shyamalan’s projects, tech is terrific. There are more positive elements – stylish directing (great use of close-ups, editing) and especially acting than the junk he’s given us in the past few years (killer shrubbery? I think not), but I’d have to say it’s a 50/50…SPLIT…as it were.
With a fairly tense opening (that plays a bit too CSI- TV but it still plays) involving sabotage, kidnapping and more than its share of unsavory sexual overtones. Three teenage girls and one of their fathers, on an outing to the local mall are overpowered and the girls kidnapped.
The character who is the villain, sad sack and eventual monster of the piece is revealed to us (S L O W L Y) as more than your typical “NYA AH AHHH” mustache – twirling bad guy, this is a monster with multiple personalities, young, old, male, female, who keep referring to the dreaded arrival of an ultimately evil persona known only as The Beast.
This is where Mr. S. strikes true cinematic pay dirt. Scottish-born veteran character actor James McAvoy (ATONEMENT, WANTED, THE X-MEN SERIES, plus several award winning roles on stage) plays the Villain/Villains – one is called Kevin, so we’ll use that. This performance is surely the make or break element that Shyamalan’s director’s instinct served he and his script/film brilliantly well. Even at times where almost any actor could easily “go over the top” or worse, allow such a challenging project to diminish him to the point of caricature, McAvoy is absolutely pitch perfect as each persona and even more spectacular, changing gears and becoming some of the TWENTY THREE alternative characters in his “SPLIT” mind.
Well one should actually say TWENTY FOUR, because when the dreaded Beast does show up (and I’ll admit, McAvoy had me completely terrified with little to no FX assistance) his Beast is as frightening as any monster I’ve seen onscreen in decades.
This is the type of performance that should, and almost always does receive multiple nominations. With association to products such as this, Blumhouse is gaining profile and pedigree in the market place, why they chose the cinematic thrift shop of January to release it, I honestly don’t understand.
Perhaps it is the mercilessly slow plot development, use of highly technical phrases and first act non-horror feel that had the production house feeling a bit “unsure” of financial success, although the extremely low budget project has already earned more than four times what it cost to produce. Shyamalan’s script is redeemed by his high sense of style as a director in the highly engaging, creep inducing third act which, as I’ve already stated, gives McAvoy a truly award worthy, terrifying creation.
Also, the two supporting female performers (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy as the fearless victim gives a maturity and raw, emotional vulnerability as the heroine and the wonderful Betty Buckley adding layers and levels to the role of Dr. Karen Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist) are more than up to performance challenges. It’s that First Act dryness of text and difficult to narratively follow, that causes me to think less of the project as a full entity.
Overall, perhaps (as is the case FAR TOO OFTEN) the promotional quote slamming, over the top, super exhilarated ad campaign that, once again suckered me into far too high expectations. As a horror film fan of 40 plus years, one would think I should have wised up…but the Fanboy in me takes over, hoping for the best…a fanboy can dream can’t he? I’m just saying…