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January 20, 2017

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right up front: I’m of two minds about Split. Ha ha, easy joke, I know, but there’s some truth to it as well. I’m not really a fan of most of M. Night Shyamalan’s work, and though I thought The Visit was an improvement, something still didn’t sit right with me. So I come into his latest offering with some skepticism, but also a cautiously open mind. And I have to say, this is probably the best movie that Shyamalan has delivered in years. Anchored by two solid performances, this is mostly a solid thriller brought down by an ending that peters out without much of a satisfying resolution.

It starts with a kidnapping. Two popular girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the weird loner from their art class are chloroformed by a man (James McAvoy) who steps into their car and drives it away from a mall parking lot in King of Prussia. They wake up in a room with three cots, an adjoining bathroom, and a locked door to an antechamber.

We soon learn that the man is Kevin, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder, or “DID”. The alternate personality who kidnapped the girls is Dennis, a fastidious man who fits the now-familiar psychopath trope. Miss Patricia is aligned with him, but when she shows up she tells the girls that she will not allow Dennis to harm them, since they’re meant for a greater purpose. Young Hedwig is nine, and seems to have some sort of power among the alters, but he’s easily manipulated, which offers the girls their first openings towards escape.

Kevin’s therapist, Karen (Betty Buckley), holds the belief that DID patients are not only psychological states, but that the different alters can actually affect the body’s chemistry and physiology. For example, one of Kevin’s alters, Jade, has diabetes, while the rest do not. And this opens the possibility of new insights into the connection between mind and body. Tapping into this power could unlock superhuman abilities. And that’s just what Dennis and Patricia believe they can do, bringing out “The Beast” in Kevin.

The biggest thing setting Split apart from the rest of Shyamalan’s movies is that he finally stops trying to work the twist. Or rather, to the extent that there is a surprise near the end, it’s not the sort of thing that tries to completely recontextualize everything we saw before. Things are pretty much as they seem, but Shyamalan still constructs scenes as if there’s a twist coming, leading his audience to grasp at the straws of what’s “really going on”. Which, to be honest, feels like kind of a cheat, feinting towards something that will never come.

On the other side, Casey has repeated flashbacks to her childhood, learning to hunt with her father and Uncle John (Brad William Henke). There’s an ominous air surrounding her, making it clear that she’s not as innocent as the two other girls who have never known real suffering. Echoing von Trier’s Melancholia, she’s the one who can keep her head in a tragedy, precisely because she’s the one who seems unable to function “normally” under normal circumstances.

Unfortunately, these two storylines never really intersect in any satisfying way. We see where Casey learned the skills she needs to survive, and we see what comes of Dennis and Patricia’s horrifying plans, but other than that they have almost nothing to do with each other. The intersection seems coincidental and inconsequential, which is a let-down from a director whose twisty plots, as dumb as they could be, were always at least pretty tight. McAvoy may get all the scenery to chew, and Taylor-Joy may continue her winning streak of performances in genre fare, but it’s not enough to make Split any more than a light snack.

Worth It: no, but only just.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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