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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Split movie review: time for another round of “What the Hell Was M. Night Shyamalan Thinking?”

Split red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Lurid and squicky, Split treads water and keeps too many secrets on a dull path to the revelation of its self-satisfied cleverness.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): not a fan of Shyamalan of late
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Three teenaged girls are kidnapped and held prisoner by a mentally ill man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID); he has 23 distinct personalities. The potential problems inherent in such a scenario are obvious, particularly given how Hollywood typically approaches such issues… and Shyamalan is nowhere near the maverick he thinks he is. Split is just as squicky as you might expect.tweet Girls are terrorized as a way to illustrate a man’s character and personality, even going so far as to cast him as a sort of victim. Mental illness is depicted as a cause of violent behavior, which is not generally the case; mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

Plausible human behavior isn’t high on Shyamalan’s list of storytelling concerns.

But perhaps the most offensive problem of all, from the perspective of telling a gripping story, is this: The man appears to have had no reason at all to kidnap and imprison the girls, not even a demented clichéd cheesy-movie-villain one. This would be quite mysterious to me, except that it has been a feature, and apparently not a bug, of Shyamalan for far too long now that plausible human behavior isn’t high on his list of storytelling concerns. The fundamental act upon which the entirety of Split is structured, around which all the other action revolves and from which all the thematic underpinnings hang, is not justified by the character who commits it, not explicitly and not implicitly, and we cannot even begin to guess at what purpose it is meant to serve for him. We can see very clearly what purpose it serves for the movie itself, but “there would be no movie absent that act” is not good enough.

Shyamalan (The Visit, The Last Airbender) has long since become a parody of himself,tweet and this is almost literal in the case of Split. Where once he could create a slow burn of genre busting — as in Unbreakable, where you knew early on that he was deliberately playing with the tropes of comic-book superhero stories — here he holds back far too much about what his intent is, and for far too long. It’s not that when the would-be grand scope of his plan is eventually revealed the story suddenly makes sense; it does not. But it does feel as if Shyamalan was so focused on his endgame that he neglected the building blocks that are meant to support it. Or perhaps he hoped we’d be so wowwed in the end that we’d overlook how insupportably flimsy it is.

This dungeon of terror is really rather civilized, all things considered.

This dungeon of terror is really rather civilized, all things considered.tweet

“Dennis” is the grim, menacing personality inside Kevin (James McAvoy: X-Men: Apocalypse, Victor Frankenstein) who kidnaps the girls — Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy: Morgan, The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson: The Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula: Honeytrap) — and locks them in a small basement room in a structure that feels commercial or light-industrial. (We don’t learn what sort of place this is until close to the end of the movie; it becomes another cheat of withheld information, though that, too, doesn’t amount to as much of anything as Shyamalan seems to think it does.) Dennis doesn’t physically hurt them; he doesn’t rape them or anything, though clearly there is plenty harm in taking away their freedom and leaving them to worry what worse is in store for them. Another personality, schoolmarmish Patricia, “reassures” the girls that “he” is “not allowed” to touch them, though the personality Hedwig — a mischievous nine-year-old — promises the girls that “he” is definitely going to do terrible things to them just as “he” has done to others. We’re not sure who “he” refers to: Is it “Dennis,” or is it a 24th personality they call “the Beast” who may or may not be about to emerge? (Though, of course, a personality who has not yet emerged cannot yet have done anything, or yet be admonished not to do something.) There is one brief mention of the girls being “sacred food” for something or other, but that never comes to anything; if they are somehow meant to be sacrificed in order to birth the Beast, we never see how this was going to work. Everything that happens thenceforth is in spite of the girls’ presence, or as a result of subsequent events that Dennis could not have planned for, and there’s never any indication of how things might have gone otherwise; so what the heck was Dennis’s intention in taking the girls? Split brings unfortunate new breadth to the notion of contrivance.tweet

McAvoy is obviously having fun, but the actor feels like a pawn in a game that Shyamalan is playing by himself.

Now, it’s plain why Shyamalan thinks it’s important for Kevin/Dennis to have kidnapped the girls: The filmmaker needs their presence so he can set up a running motif about the particular sturdiness of people who’ve been abused. We see in flashbacks fleshing out Casey’s background that she has suffered terribly throughout her childhood, and this makes her better able to cope with the ordeal the girls are now going through than Claire and Marcia are managing. And we know through Kevin’s regular visits with his shrink, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley: The Happening) — who talks to personality Barry, a sensitive creative type — that Kevin was also badly abused as a child. Fletcher is present in the story primarily to info-dump us about DID and to prompt us to feel sorry for Kevin, for the lengths to which he has had to go in order to endure his abuse, creating all these other personalities to shield him from reality. And the idea that being a survivor of something terrible conveys a wisdom — as it clearly does in Casey — and offers a strength that others cannot appreciate is a wonderful one, and not something I’ve seen explored onscreen in quite this way before. But Shyamalan’s intent on keeping secrets rather than painting well-rounded portraits — particular in the case of Kevin — undercuts that. Rather than truly building understanding and sympathy, Split is much more interested in the luridness of an adult man tormenting teenaged girls, and in their terror. (OCD-sufferer Dennis keeps having them strip off articles of their clothing as they get dirty during their escape attempts. Ugh.)

McAvoy is obviously having fun with Kevin’s different personalities, and Taylor-Joy is a talent to watch, but even they feel like pawns in a game that Shyamalan is playing by himself, one he only begrudgingly lets us peek in on. Too much of Split treads water, biding its time until it can reveal its proud cleverness, by which point it feels only like a cheap trick, self-satisfied yet unsatisfying.tweet

Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.

red light 2 stars

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Split (2017) | directed by M. Night Shyamalan
US/Can release: Jan 20 2017
UK/Ire release: Jan 20 2017

MPAA: rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
BBFC: rated 15 (sustained threat, abduction theme)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • RicoSuave

    “Identity” with John Cusack from 2003 explored the idea of battling multiple personalities from a very inventive point of view.

  • Jurgan

    I’ve seen at least one positive review of this movie, which basically said that it builds suspense very effectively and that McAvoy’s acting is amazing. At the same time, I’m put off by the idea of people with mental issues as villains. There’s a lot of controversy about DID and whether it’s real or properly diagnosed. SPOILER

    So apparently this movie is in the same universe as Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s best movie. I probably will see it eventually, and I’ll just assume that, since we’re in a world with superpowers, mental issues don’t work the same way as in the real world.

  • RogerBW

    I don’t know why anyone bothers with M. Night any more. His name comes up on the trailer credits, and people groan. Sure, he’s male, but he’s not white, and it usually takes both to keep getting funding to make a string of stinkers.

    But hey, this was shot for $9 mil and the suckers paid $40 mil over the opening weekend, so I guess this is a “career recovery”. It’s hard to go wrong with exploiting pretty girls being terrified, beyond the basic wrongness of doing it at all; there’s a fan-base for this crap who don’t care about characterisation or scripting or originality as long as the women look scared.

  • Danielm80

    The one good thing about this movie is that, because I’m never going to see it, I don’t have to be paranoid about hearing spoilers.

  • RogerBW

    The killer is a sled!

  • What you say about where the movie is occurring is accurate, but I don’t think it mitigates the problems with the movie.

  • RicoSuave

    MNS despite being nowhere near the popularity he had after Sixth Sense, is still a money maker for Hollywood. His 11 films have made almost $1.6 Billion worldwide. In the end that’s all that matters in the movie business. Money.


  • Eric Hoheisel

    “There is one brief mention of the girls being “sacred food” for something or other, but that never comes to anything; if they are somehow meant to be sacrificed in order to birth the Beast, we never see how this was going to work.”


    Well, to be fair, the beast does actually start to eat one of the girls, so I guess we can take ‘food’ as literal. The set-up suggests to me that Shyamalan originally conceived the story with a demonic turn at the end, rather than the sci-fi bent that it ended up using.

  • Well, to be fair, the beast does actually start to eat one of the girls, so I guess we can take ‘food’ as literal.

    But that happens after the Beast has arrived. That “sacred food” line, at best, could be read as a suggestion that the girls are somehow required in order for the Beast to manifest himself in the first place. But there’s really no rationale for anything.

  • Aaron Jones

    Can you comment on the findings of this article? I don’t really want to see Split, but if this is true, then I’d like to see just this part of it.

  • What sort of comment would you like? I was aware of what Shyamalan was trying to do, and it did not make me appreciate the movie any more. I stand by my red light and two stars.

    I’m not sure how you could watch just the ending of the film and get anything significant out of it.

  • Aaron Jones

    I’m only interested in the aspect of Split that supposedly puts it in the same universe as Unbreakable, a movie that I really liked. I just wanted to know if you thought that connection was established and valid.

  • Danielm80

    It’s pretty well-established at this point. For example, there’s this article:


  • Bluejay

    Why wouldn’t it be valid? If the movie explicitly makes the connection (which it does; you can look for “split ending scene” on YouTube), then the connection has been made.

  • Aaron Jones

    Thanks for the link.

  • The film leaves no doubt that this is taking place within in the same universe as *Unbreakable,* but it doesn’t do that until the final moments, which does not redeem everything that has come before.

  • Aaron Jones

    Thank you! Also thanks to Bluejay and Danielm80.

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