Befitting its main character, M. Night Shyamalan goes all over the place with his latest thriller Split, which, after 2015’s The Visit, continues the director’s small-scale comeback after a near-decade long period of misfires like The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. Does the comeback continue? Kind of.
Before the screening, Shyamalan greeted us with a video message. He explained his want for the film to be more than a thriller, with equal parts comedy and drama as well. This may not have been the best decision. The film ends up more funny than tense or scary. And while this isn’t necessarily the fault of the film’s comedic elements, which do hit, it causes missed opportunities for character development. No matter how humorously unnerving, at the end of the day, the characters are what makes a film impactful or tense.
Aside from Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey, all of the characters in the film are extremely underdeveloped. As a result, when the two other kidnapped girls, Claire and Marcia, are in danger, we feel no tension. Even James McAvoy‘s Kevin is underdeveloped, as we learn about the character through seemingly endless exposition. What we’re left with is a small sample of personalities and no compelling display of any internal struggle. The personalities we get to witness all want to achieve the same goal, making the film easily predictable (and this audience member bored). Sure, there are plenty of little twists and turns along the way, including a fun nod at the end; but the most substantial twists can be expected long before their reveal.
Furthermore, Split tells us more about the characters than we see. We hear of how characters previously behaved, but it doesn’t line up with what we see in the film itself– which is a disappointing pattern. A lot of the interesting material happens through telling the audience instead of showing us. Kevin, whose worst acts are only spoken of, becomes the lesser villain to one barely seen. Kevin’s beast form, which is the true villain of the film, is not only uncompelling but tedious. Kevin’s other villainous personalities are far more compelling and yet wasted.
Yet the film’s message is a beautiful one, which I hope helps many people’s lives. Mental and physical scars in the film are treated as greater than “normal lives” numerous times during the film. People going through pain need to understand they are not made lesser and, indeed, are often even stronger after the fact. If the film achieves anything, it is in its underlying message about mental health and to take care of yourself, no matter what.
In regard to framing and composition, the film is beautifully shot and is a wonderful feast for the eyes. The film plays with both symmetry and shot length to enhance storytelling. Yet there is one specific shot which beats you over the head and just should have been left out. The leads, however, are top-notch. Both McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy give incredible performances which completely sell their characters. McAvoy, in particular, is able to with minimal wardrobe changes, perfectly encapsulate several different personalities. Without his skillful performance, the movie simply wouldn’t work.
Despite several gripes and plot-holes, Shyamalan’s latest film Split is at least worth the price of admission, if not much more.