It’s time to ask some important questions. Why do film companies keep giving M. Night Shymalan the money to make more films? Why do major actors still think it’s worth taking a punt on appearing in one of them? And perhaps most vexing of all, why do I keep giving the man another chance? To be fair, I’ve managed to resist seeing his last few efforts, alerted by terrible advance reviews, but the word on Split is that it represents a major return to form (something he hasn’t really had, in my opinion, since The Sixth Sense, way back in 1999). So off I dutifully trot to my local multiplex and, perhaps inevitably, I am disappointed once again.
Split is all about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder and who, according to his therapist, Doctor Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), has twenty-three separate identities. At the film’s opening, he abducts three young women who are leaving a birthday party and imprisons them in his labyrinthine underground lair. One of them, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), seems more resourceful than her companions, mostly because of trauma she suffered in her childhood (and to which the film intermittently flashes back). Casey learns very quickly that one of Kevin’s personalities, a nine year old boy called Hedwig, is more approachable than the others and starts to investigate this as a possible way out of her predicament… but all of Kevin’s characters talk about the imminent arrival of a new and very frightening twenty-fourth identity…
It’s an intriguing premise but one which falls short on just about every level. Given that it’s about an abduction, the film fails to generate any real tension or sense of threat. Its risible treatment of a genuine psychological disorder, will, I have no doubt, offend anybody who knows anything about the reality of the situation, as will the actions of Doctor Fletcher, a supposed professional who surely breaks every rule in the book in her approach to her patient(s). McAvoy makes a decent fist of his eight roles (thankfully he isn’t called upon to show us the other fifteen!), which essentially means he changes his voice and expressions, so we’re never in any doubt as to which personality we’re seeing at any given time, but it’s hardly the grandstanding tour de force I’d been led to expect. Perhaps if the script (as ever, also by Shymalan) had been more skilful, I’d have been more convinced by what I was hearing.
All the usual Shymalan tropes are in evidence. Cameo performance by the director? Check. Twist ending that you can see coming a mile off? Check. Weird Twilight Zone-style payoff? Check. And oddly, we’re also offered a coda that absolutely relies on you having a working knowledge of the director’s early output. Inevitably, a lot of people left feeling baffled.
Shymalan has always had a very singular approach to his cinematic ‘vision’ but I’m sorry to say that, try as I might, it’s a vision that I am unable to share. Well, at least it was better than Lady In The Water.