M. Night Shyamalan started his career getting compared to Steven Spielberg, but Split appears to put him in Brian De Palma territory, harkening back to his 1992 John Lithgow multiple personality thriller Raising Cain. Yet it eventually becomes clear that Split's take on a disturbed man with multiple dangerous personas and a penchant for kidnapping is all Shyamalan, for the good, the bad and everything in between. And in the truest Shyamalan fashion, there is no way to fully explain how and why without giving away the whoppers at the end.
Nonetheless, this review will try to dance around Shyamalan's secrets, as hard as it may be. In case it is still too spoilery anyway, this is the reader's last warning.
WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOLLOW
A withdrawn and self-isolated high school student named Casey is in the wrong place at the wrong time, when she is invited to a classmate's birthday party out of obligation and then finds herself abducted with her and another young woman. The man responsible only goes by the name of Dennis, but he is hardly working alone. In fact, Dennis is one of 23 personalities residing in a man named Kevin, although the personas of Dennis, a woman named Patricia and a little boy named Hedwig have seized control to carry out the kidnapping. As Casey attempts to work her way free, and as Kevin's longtime psychiatrist develops her own suspicions, the "Horde" in charge of Kevin are preparing to bring about a new and all powerful side of him called "The Beast", before anyone both in and out of Kevin can stand in their way.
The kidnapping itself is almost comically easy, with Dennis's intended targets too buried in their own phones to see anything in time, and Casey too frozen in fear to move before Dennis can even notice her. The reasons for that become clearer later on, yet it is the first sign that there are a few holes to poke in the movie.
Leaving the multiple personalities aside, much of Shyamalan's set up really seems lifted from 10 Cloverfield Lane, down to a traumatized woman being abducted and kept underground by a disturbed lunatic, the potential supernatural element lurking behind it all, and more that becomes evident over time. Yet Split has a harder time matching Cloverfield's tense and suspenseful execution of such a premise, and for all the James McAvoy's on display, none of them match the sinister chills of John Goodman.
Anya Taylor-Joy's Casey is certainly more reserved than Mary Elizabeth Winstead, for very clear reasons. But while her cohorts are in much more panic and don't want to be "victims", Casey takes a more patient approach in figuring out what to do, with obvious parallels to hunting being made through childhood flashbacks. Like Kevin, Casey’s broken and different nature actually gives her a kind of power in this particular situation at first, albeit a more rational and far less evil one.
This actually pays off for her somewhat when Casey encounters Hedwig, which also helps to make him the most vivid of the star personality trio by far. However, the downside is more than a few moments that border on pure camp, from his ‘et cetera” catch phrase to an attempted kiss and a dance routine in his room that must be seen to be believed.
Some more tense confrontations come when Kevin’s psychiatrist questions Dennis, who tries to disguise himself in a different persona first. At the least, Shyamalan makes things right regarding Betty Buckley after giving her a widely mocked third act cameo in The Happening.
But aside from that and from watching McAvoy in all his forms, Split is mainly buying time until the third act. The trailers mainly gave away the gist of the first two acts, from Kevin’s personas to the giveaway that “The Beast” is real in some way. As such, this is a movie that pretty much entirely hinges on the ending, and whether it will provide a good enough payoff for the best parts and redeem the less effective ones.
Going deeper into detail on whether it does, and how it doesn’t, is almost impossible to break down in full without getting into spoilers. Nonetheless, the least spoilery way to sum it up is that it can be summed up by the title, which technically isn’t really a good thing.
On the one hand, the final revelations will play like complete and utter catnip to Shyamalan’s most faithful, who have already endured quite a bit over his last decade of misfires. For them, certain aspects may feel like a reward for all their years of patience and loyalty. In fact, one big clue in the next-to-last minute will tip longtime Shyamalan viewers off long before the actual final reveal.
Yet on the other hand, those outside of Shyamalan’s fandom may just regard it as the most self-indulgent move Shyamalan’s pulled yet, in a career that’s been pretty filled with self-indulgence since 2002.
The funny thing is that the big twist really has very little to do with the first 99 percent of the film itself. While it certainly puts the whole movie and its true purpose in a brand new light, it certainly isn’t on a Sixth Sense level. That twist made audiences see the whole story, its meaning and its characters in a new way that was organic to the movie, and rewarded multiple viewings to understand what Shyamalan was really going for the whole time.
The Sixth Sense’s finale may be what everyone remembers it for, yet it enriched the rest of an already powerful movie and lifted it into another level. In contrast, Split doesn’t enrich the first 99 percent of its movie with its final twist, so much as it completely overshadows it. There is no doubt it will get Shyamalan’s fans and his critics talking up a storm, but almost none of it will have to do with what came before the final minute.
There is still quite a bit to go over in the third act, however, although not all of that is for good reasons either. Once The Beast is finally ready to come out, it almost seems like Shyamalan is putting McAvoy back into the X-Men universe, as it mutates him into an all powerful monster instead of a benevolent wheelchair bound genius. It is certainly quite a spectacle to witness, albeit one that borders on high camp for both McAvoy and the movie.
As it turns out, this isn’t the only way that Split resembles a Marvel/MCU film, albeit one with the origin story of a supervillain instead of a hero. Like the average MCU origin story, more questions are raised than answered, presumably to set up sequels that may or may not come. Of course, the average MCU origin story doesn’t have villains, deaths and subject matter like Split’s.
Shyamalan already went into superhero territory well before it took over Hollywood, as Unbreakable still stands out as a superhero tale unlike any that came in the next 15 years. However, while Shyamalan beat to his own drum of a comic book inspired story back then, it seems like he is conforming more to MCU standards at a few points here, in story telling philosophy if not in content.
In addition, turning someone with dissociative identity disorder into an almost supernaturally evil creature certainly won't win Shyamalan any points for sensitivity. He already made a highly handicapped and “broken” person into the villain of Unbreakable, and doubles down on that concept to such an extent that it may raise a few troubling questions.
Yet that is nothing compared to the end result of Casey’s childhood flashbacks, and how they ultimately pay off her present day struggle. The end result and implication behind that twist is surely not going to reflect well on Shyamalan to a lot of people, and may well be the most objectionable message of the entire movie.
In that context, perhaps it is for the best that the final twist overshadows this conclusion a minute later. In many other contexts, however, Split’s true nature doesn’t do the rest of the movie a lot of favors.
Once the secret gets out and everyone can talk about it, there will be a lot to go over about its implications, about Shyamalan himself and about many other topics that can’t be spoiled here. Yet when it comes to determining whether or not it makes Split a true comeback for Shyamalan, it is really a split decision at the very most.
There will undeniably be a lot of Shyamalan diehards and a few others who are bowled over, and who will talk about the implications of the ending and a potential aftermath for some time. Nonetheless, there’s just as much of a case to be made that it isn’t enough to uplift and make up for what comes before, that it really only barely tries to, and that it is still pretty far away from the level and motives of Shyamalan’s older, better twists.
Either way, despite McAvoy’s obviously extensive efforts, there isn’t much else in Split that rises to the level of debate and discussion the ending will bring up, whether in favor of it or not. General audiences will get to judge for themselves, and dance around the specifics to those who haven’t, on Jan. 20.