Box Office Democracy: Split
Split is over a week old and that’s usually enough to disqualify a movie from coverage here. (This is the policy that keeps me from reviewing Blade 2 every six months in a vain attempt to force it in to the conversation for best superhero movie of all time.) But Split had a secret, and that secret didn’t get out until the movie had released and I had already watched the movie for last week. I’m going to talk about this secret right off the bat so if you have somehow avoided this piece of information I will tell you that Split is an excellent horror movie that might be a bit tame in the sheer terror aspects but is totally worth watching especially if you’ve liked M. Night Shyamalan’s works in the past. From here on it’s spoilers on; stop reading if you want that undisturbed experience.
We’ll wait for you below.
It turns out Split is a quasi-sequel to Unbreakable, the 2000 Shyamalan masterpiece that was easily the best superhero movie released before 2008, the last scene features a cameo appearance from Bruce Willis as David Dunn and suggesting that there will be a third movie in this quasi-series. It’s kind of amazing to have this film in a totally different genre a decade and a half later tie in like this. It wouldn’t make Split a great movie if it were average, but it turns a pretty good movie into a fascinating one. I wasn’t excited to see Split from watching the trailer, but I’ll be at the third movie in this series on opening night.
Split itself is a good film, and a creepy one, but I’m not sure it’s all the way scary. It’s a story of three girls kidnapped by a man suffering from a supernatural version of dissociative identity disorder, and his three malevolent personalities believe they will bring about the coming of a super-powered identity by sacrificing these girls. James McAvoy is unsettling in his portrayals of the different people living inside one body and the body language changes he does are subtle but instantly recognizable, although his accent work is sometimes a little hammy. I felt for the girls in peril but things never got all the way to scary, and I’ll never be sitting in my room at night in the dark wondering if a super version of James McAvoy is waiting in my closet.
While not the most bone-chilling film on the planet there are things Split does exceptionally well. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the lead, is a compelling portrait of a child raised in an abusive household. They tell her story through flashbacks to a hunting trip and reinforce it with little bits of seemingly throwaway dialogue about how she gets in trouble at school to keep from going home. While the horror dilemma of the film is solved by a bit of a deus ex machina, we end the film with a pregnant pause full of emotion suggesting that Casey is finally willing to tell an authority figure about what is happening to her. It’s quiet and subtle but it’s more powerful than McAvoy crawling on the ceiling or shrugging off shotgun shells. What it does not do particularly well is provide a sensitive portrayal of dissociative identity disorder, but I’m willing to hand wave that a bit because they basically just need it to justify superpowers and every origin story is filled with some bullshit.
M. Night Shyamalan is grossly overqualified to be doing this kind of horror work. I mentioned this a couple years back when he was doing The Visit but Shyamalan is just leagues ahead of most of his colleagues doing horror in terms of shot framing, visual storytelling, and rapport with actors. It’s like seeing LeBron James play pickup basketball at your local YMCA; he scores 100 points and blocks literally every shot the other team takes. Shyamalan seems so comfortable and in control with these genre pictures that it’s easy to forget that he struggled for close to a decade to make a watchable film. It’s also hard to see these films and remember that Shyamalan was an Academy Award-nominated writer and director at the start of his career. I hope when the time is right he’s ready to go back to the big leagues. (In case you’re curious, in the basketball metaphor Guillermo del Toro is Steph Curry and James Wan is Draymond Green.)