Reel Talk

Split Is Dumb, Exploitative, and Whole Lot of Fun

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I really can’t think of another director with a weirder history that M. Night Shyamalan. When The Sixth Sense hit he was labeled a new and dynamic voice in cinema, and a director who will pick up the mantle of Master of Suspense. Then Unbreakable came out, and people were a little unsure about that statement. He then proceeded to churn out a slew of movies of increasingly poor quality that relied on more and more ridiculous twists. He was diminishing returns, and it genuinely seemed to baffle people that he was still getting work. I mean, not many people can make movies like the Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth and still be allowed to make movies. People have been put in Director’s Jail for less than any of them, let alone all of them. And yet, Shyamalan continues to make movies, to the shock of everyone. But something extra shocking happened when his latest film, Split, was first released at last year’s Fantastic Fest. People dug the hell out of it. This was shocking in and of itself, but everything I was hearing about this movie was that it was a hell of a good time, and the first enjoyable film that Shyamalan had crafted in some time. So, against all logic, I decided to o check out Split, and I’ve got to tell you, this movie has to be seen to believe.

I went in virtually blind, only with the barest of plot descriptions in my head, and honestly, if you have any interest in this film I kind of think that that’s the way to go. I hadn’t even seen any trailers, and I think that that was the way to go. So go check the movie out, and then come back, because things get crazy. The film starts off at a birthday party for a popular high school student named Claire. Once the party is over her father is going to driver her, her friend Marcia, and the odd girl that they were forced to invite, Casey, home. Unfortunately, while they’re sitting in the parking lot man who I guess we’ll call Kevin, shows up and knocks the dad out, kidnapping the three girls. They’re then drugged and woken up in a cell somewhere, Kevin’s captors. Kevin comes in, calling himself Dennis, and trying to lay some groundrules for the girls. Which is where things start to get weird. Because it turns out that Kevin is a man with Dissosiative Identity Disorder,  the questionable disorder that used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Kevin has 23 distinct personalities in his head, and three of them in particular have decided to do something horrible, and kidnap these three girls. There’s Dennis the muscle who suffers from OCD, Patricia the brains of the operation, and Hedwig the childlike personality who has the ability to take over Kevin’s body whenever he wants.

And while this insane day drags on we get a series of flashbacks for both Kevin and Casey. As far as Casey is concerned we learn that she’s had a pretty horrible life, living with an abusive uncle. But it’s Kevin’s flashbacks where things get intense. We learn that he’s been the subject of a psychologist named Dr. Karen Fletcher who is the leading researcher into DID, and who not only believes that the condition is real, but that studying it may hold the key to human evolution. She tells stories of people with DID who have completely different biology, depending on which personality is in control, such as one of Kevin’s identity’s having diabetes and the others not, and she believes that the power of the mind has the ability to completely control the body. Which is exactly the problem, because it turns out that Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig have found a 24th identity inside Kevin, one which they claim came augment his body and transform himself into a monster known as the Beast, one which desires the flesh of humans who have lived easy lives. Hence the abduction of Claire and Marcia. It was Casey that was unplanned, and the fact that she hasn’t had an easy life, and is thus “pure” in the Beast’s eyes. And I think that’s where I’m going to end the recap. There’s more to the ending, and it gets even more insane than what I’ve described. Plus, there’s a little stinger on the end of the film that completely re-contextualizes the film and will absolutely blow your mind.

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When I first heard about this film, after it premiered at Fantastic Fest, I assumed that it wasn’t really going to be worth checking out. I had absolutely no good-will towards Shyamalan, and despite what people were saying I couldn’t believe that this movie was going to be anything special. I studied psychology in college, and I remain unconvinced if DID is an actual thing, and I assumed that this was going to be a rather exploitative take on a possible disease. And yeah, it kind of was, but at the same time for the first half of the movie the disorder was treated with some dignity. They were calling it Dissossiative Identity Disorder and not Multiple Personality Disorder, and the implications that if could be studying to ascertain the full limits of the human mind were interesting, while probably not likely.

It was a fun and campy little thriller, and was actually surprisingly well-crafted for the most part. Everyone is putting in tremendous performances, especially Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey, and James McAvoy is absolutely going for it as Kevin. He’s hammy and ridiculous at times, but at other he’s actually showing some remarkable restraint, creating a performance really unlike any other that I’ve seen before. And, surprisingly, it’s a really well-made movie. The cinematography is pretty great and claustrophobic, the music is intimidating, and the whole thing is put together with a nice sense of dread that really came together was a tense and thrilling film about a killer. In ways it reminded me of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which I would consider a compliment. However, much like 10 Cloverfield Lane, the film ran into some problems at the end. Specifically the last act, which is when we really learn about the Beast. Things kind of fell apart for me at that point, taking what had been a rather tense and quasi-realistic film and making it a little too fantastical. However, that ending kind of turned me around on the whole third act. Seriously, you need to see the end of this movie, and you’ll really want to rewatch it, because it kind of completely changes everything you’d just seen. Plus, now I really want to know what Shyamalan has up his sleeve for his next movie, which is a sentiment that I’d never thought I would have.

Split was written and directed by M Night Shyamalan and released by Universal Pictures, 2017.

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