Confession time. Until the lights dimmed for the Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest 2016, I had not seen a film directed by M. Night Shyamalan since 2004. That would be The Village. The one two punch of that and Signs left me… not averse to, but apathetic about following his work. I had grown weary of his po-faced take on genre cinema and I stopped going out of my way to catch his films. So when I walked out of that screening of Shyamalan’s latest, Split, I found myself pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed it! Why? Because it’s fun. It turns out M. Knight’s pretty good at fun.
Like a lot of good genre fare, Split throws you right into the action. A bespectacled and taciturn MRA-type named Dennis (James McAvoy) drugs and abducts three teenage girls. One of them is Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), your classic socially awkward, slightly gothy gal, barely tolerated by her two more bubbly peers, Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula). Where Split bucks convention almost immediately is in the dynamic between the girls. While clearly the protagonist, Casey is dour and fatalistic, whereas the other girls are engaged in their situation and are active in trying to escape from it. That’s good news for Casey’s character (since that leaves room for growth), the other girls (since they’re given something to do other than being whimpering slasher-fodder) and us (since we’re not bored out of our damned minds).
Being bored stops being an issue when Dennis comes to visit them in their cell and he’s not Dennis anymore. Instead he’s Patricia. As it turns out, “Dennis” is a fellow who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, aka “split personalities.” That’s not a spoiler, you guys! It’s in the title! Patricia, like Dennis, is one of the dominant personalities, and she is the character who introduces Split’s strange mixture of horror and humor. While the robotic and pervy Dennis was vaguely absurd to begin with, he seems even more so once you see McAvoy in Patricia mode. She’s a soft-spoken and proper woman who claims to be apologetic about the circumstances they all find themselves in. If anything, she’s even more transparently malicious than Dennis: a veneer of well-mannered kindness covering a fundamentally ruthless nature.
The third of McAvoy’s three main (emphasis on the main) personalities is Hedwig, a pre-teen boy with a speech impediment. Hedwig is funny and potentially a point of leverage for the girls. There’s one scene in particular that will be the scene that launches a thousand GIFs. You’ll know it when you see it.
He’s also just as dangerous as anyone else bouncing around in that poor guy’s head.
I’m not going to into any more narrative detail for fear of spoiling something, but not because there’s a trademark Shyamalan twist waiting in the wings. Refreshingly there is not.* Somewhat like The Cabin in the Woods, the film unfolds rather than waiting for some key dramatic moment to recontextualize everything that came before, and it mostly feels natural and engaging.
But what really makes the film work is that it’s a B-movie. By ditching the twists and self-seriousness, Shyamalan has freed himself up tonally and narratively and the end result feels like a better crafted version of something that Roger Corman would have made back in the day. It’s funny, pulpy, somewhat exploitive (more on that in a second) and consistently entertaining. There’s even a 21st Century equivalent of the scene where the capital-S Scientist pulls down a conveniently wall-mounted diagram to explain what’s going on. It’s a ball!
As I alluded to, there are some problematic elements (Sorry, Allen!) that some might find off-putting, the most obvious of which is the film’s treatment of mental illness. McAvoy’s character is a collection of monsters due to his disorder, and it’s a shame to see that kind of demonization made so overt. I was able to give it a pass during my screening because it feels of a piece with the film’s general pulpiness, and I can imagine a 1950s poster falsely proclaiming, “RIPPED FROM THE PAGES OF REAL MEDICAL RESEARCH!” but then again I don’t suffer from DID. I can imagine being offended by the film’s version of the disorder, smothered as it is in Lucy-level pseudoscientific bullshit and manifested as a girl-abducting monster.
Closely related to the mental disorder issue but feeling more out of place is the film’s element of child sexual abuse and its aftermath. Nothing is portrayed graphically, and Shyamalan tries to tie it all together, but it feels wrong tonally in a number of ways. What we have here is mental illness-ploitation. Consider yourself warned.
If you can deal with that aspect, you’ll find that Shyamalan has made a lively and largely unpretentious horror movie, anchored by a spectacular performance (performances?) from James McAvoy. There are no twists and no delusions of grandeur. Just a solid, well-crafted and entertaining genre flick. I like Shyamalan when he’s at play.
*If anyone wants to discuss the post-credits stinger, please respect other readers and use the <spoiler> tag. Thank you!