January is a funny time of year for film in the U.K. By now the U.S.A have already seen the annual run of oscar-bait. On our little island, we hear rave-reviews about films like La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight months before we get to see them. So, by now, even though we’ve finally had chance to see a few, there is no point in me telling you how lovely La La Land is or how moving Manchester By The Sea is. They’re both great and will win a ton of awards, though.
Instead, I’m going to talk about the other kind of film that comes out here in January: the trash. Specifically, Split, M. Night. Shyamalan’s newest gimmick around which he’s built a film. ‘What if a kidnapper had twenty-four personalities’. It’s not the worst concept ever and I was even a little intrigued by the trailer. In execution, though, Split is unsubtle, cringey and everybody involved should be ashamed of themselves.
I have only ever been genuinely offended by two films: Split and The Visit (Shyamalan’s last film). Under the right circumstances film should offend, it should question you and expand your boundaries. Split doesn’t, it’s just exploitative. The Visit took dementia and built a horror film around it. Again, not the worst concept ever. The problem is Shyamalan can’t help treating it as funny so it doesn’t work. Laugh at what you like but personally, I hated it. In Split, Shyamalan takes mental illness, personality disorders, self-harming and even child-molestation and plays them for laughs. Early on in the film I was rolling my eyes, it’s juvenile and crude but harmless. By the end, I was angry. For the few in the theatre that laughed, I’m sure that Split was quirky and alternative. In fact it was nasty, problematic and tonally inconsistent. Split came across like it was written as a comedy but acted and shot like a horror whilst being neither funny or scary, a mess if I ever saw one.
Three girls are abducted although almost immediately two of them are stripped, locked in rooms and forgotten about for the remainder of the film. The third is chased around a confusing house that turns out to be a city-zoo (really). All the while, her clothes progressively fall off, until she is scantily-clad enough for the chaser to realise she has self-harm scars and lets her off. His reasoning: ‘the undamaged are impure’ (or something along those lines). Implying that unless you can physically see someones damage they are in fact undamaged, remember, this film is about mental illness.
Morally, Split is questionable but its most outrageous crime, the cardinal, most grievous of sins… it’s boring. Even though it runs at a hefty two hours, the girls are abducted in the first five minutes. So, we are exposed to our monster immediately. No suspense is built so we’re not afraid. At times it is as if we’re supposed to actually sympathise with Kevin (McAvoy). But he’s just kidnapped and stripped three teenage girls. The trailer sells the film on McAvoy’s multi-character acting and we’re constantly reminded that Kevin has twenty three distinct personalities although we only meet a few for more than a couple of minutes, the rest are either glimpsed for a second or not encountered at all. The pseudo-science of his disorder will have you scratching your head at the best of times.
McAvoy is pretty fearless when it comes to accepting roles but maybe it’s time to learn how to say no. At best, in Split, he is intimidating and at worst he is embarrassing. Some of Kevin’s personalities are admittedly more fleshed out than others. Some have OCD, some lift weights, some break dance, some have diabetes… McAvoy changes his entire physiology at times and is clearly relishing the role. No scenery is left unchewed. Unfortunately, when your promised twenty-odd characters and you get three or four, disappointment is inevitable. Anya Taylor-Joy who was promising in The Witch, not so promising in Morgan, plays the female lead and (like in Morgan) runs around and is moody; she’s getting good at that.
Shyamalan’s method is a confusing one and it took me a while to put my finger on what exactly is going on. It seems that he is in an emerging pattern of taking a sensitive issue and being the only person to not take it seriously, which when you are the writer and director is a problem. The film and its characters play it straight. Tonally everything is very serious but something is off. There is a lingering sense of nastiness to his recent films. I think this is embodied in his cameo, in which he plays the only character to break the unsmiling tone of the film, practically winking at the camera whilst everybody else is sombre throughout.
Split isn’t scary, it isn’t exciting and it does nothing for stereotypes regarding young girls or the mentally ill. What it does do is shoehorns the worst attempt at a shared universe into its final scene that I’ve ever seen. Bruce Willis’ cameo as his character from Unbreakable (that film from fifteen years ago that has absolutely nothing to do with Split) is laughable. At two hours, Split isn’t even worth the watch on schlock factor, it’s too boring; go see Underworld instead… or something good, like La La Land.