Editor’s Notes: Split opens in wide theatrical release today, January 20th.
Anyone who thought M. Night Shyamalan’s last film, The Visit, was something of a return to form for a filmmaker who, mostly by his own hand, had fallen on hard times, was, of course, grading on a generous curve. After the disastrous trio of The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth (box-office and critical disappointments one and all), it looked like Shyamalan’s career as a director was all but over. But then a semi-fortuitous meeting with micro-budget producer Jason Blum convinced Shyamalan to reinvent himself as a low-budget horror auteur. Their first horror-themed collaboration, The Visit, didn’t exactly convince Shyamalan’s detractors that he was back to his creative peak of the early oughts, but at least it was stripped of the pretension and hubris of his more recent output. Shyamalan’s latest, Split, a psychological horror story set in Shyamalan’s favorite city, Philadelphia, implicitly promised to deliver on Shyamalan’s modest, scaled-back ambitions, but it falls short more often than it stands tall.
As in, Shyamalan long ago lost the ability to write characters with any kind of shading, depth, or nuance. He seems incapable of writing characters with interior lives, let alone consistent behavior.
Mental health advocates have already criticized Shyamalan for his depiction of dissociative identity disorder (DID), but given an exploitation-level story involving one character with 23, possibly 24 distinct personalities, Kevin (James McAvoy), and a kidnapping plot involving three teens, two popular, relatively affluent high-school girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and an unpopular hanger-on, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), there’s little, if anything, that can be described as “realistic” in a psychological horror film like Split. It has more than enough flaws and shortcomings, however, to make that particular line of criticism moot, beginning (and possibly ending) with Shyamalan’s usual character-related problems: As in, Shyamalan long ago lost the ability to write characters with any kind of shading, depth, or nuance. He seems incapable of writing characters with interior lives, let alone consistent behavior.
By far the most egregious example of Shyamalan’s character problem can be found in Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s longtime psychotherapist. She specializes in patients with Kevin’s disorder, having met all but two or three of them (e.g., male and female, young and old, straight and gay) over the better part of two or three decades. She also has a vaguely defined theory about Kevin’s uniqueness (i.e., possibly the latest stage in human evolution), a patently unscientific theory that somehow merits a Skype call-in to an international conference. We’re expected to believe she’s emotionally invested in her patients, especially Kevin. Without that investment, though, Fletcher’s repeated failure to make anything approaching a common-sense decision long after Kevin has begun to exhibit dangerous tendencies inexorably, inevitably, and all-too-predictably leads to personal peril. Fletcher exists primarily as an exposition dumper and plot mover. And when she moves the increasingly absurd, logic-rejecting plot forward, she turns into the perfect example of what the late Roger Ebert called “idiot plotting.”
And if we’ve learned anything from Shyamalan’s career, it’s that he won’t stop until unless we as a collective decide we’re no longer interested in what Shyamalan, however humbled, however diminished, has to offer.
With the exception of an early film gag meant as a pointed critique of post-millennial self-absorption (obsessed with their cell phones, Claire and Marcia don’t notice Kevin in their car for several minutes), the three girls rarely rise above horror-film fodder with Casey marked as the potential “final girl” from the get go. Besides cutting back-and-forth between the kidnapped girls and Fletcher’s sessions with one of Kevin’s personalities, Shyamalan makes the dubious choice to separate the three girls, adding unnecessary length to an already bloated, self-indulgent runtime. Claire and Marcia disappear for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a time. Given how poorly formed they are as characters, each cut back to their seemingly dire situation lacks the emotional kick or dramatic punch Shyamalan obviously hopes to elicit from the audience. Casey gets more screentime, not to mention her own, individualized flashbacks that draw closer each time to revealing a childhood trauma that, when finally brought into the open, feels cheap and manipulative.
Nothing, however, feels quite as cheap or manipulative as Shyamalan’s attempt to turn Split into more than just a standalone film (as it should have been), leaving not just the possibility of an unwanted sequel hovering offstage, but the potential for a shared cinematic universe too. Given that shared universes and multi-film franchises are all the Hollywood rage, we shouldn’t be surprised by Shyamalan’s attempt to do the same, not because it makes thematic or narrative sense, but because, ultimately, it gives Shyamalan the out he needs to keep working as a filmmaker. And if we’ve learned anything from Shyamalan’s career, it’s that he won’t stop until unless we as a collective decide we’re no longer interested in what Shyamalan, however humbled, however diminished, has to offer.
Split is a psychological horror story set in Shyamalan’s favorite city, Philadelphia, implicitly promised to deliver on Shyamalan’s modest, scaled-back ambitions, but it falls short more often than it stands tall.