Deranged thriller Split will certainly split audiences, but it’s a daring piece of cinema
Upon exiting a recent advance screening of M. Night Shyamalan‘s Split, a young woman from some sort of radio station stuck a microphone in my face and asked what I thought about the movie and asked who I would recommend it to.
Recommend it to? I honestly didn’t have an answer. I stood there, frozen. But upon recovery, I simply replied, “I don’t know.”
And even after processing the mainstream derangement that is Split, I still don’t know who the audience is for this film. Split is being marketed as a horror movie. But it’s not really a horror movie, not in the traditional definition of the genre, anyway. Everything about the movie is off. The rhythm is weird. The dialogue is arch. The sense of urgency is meandering and odd. The characters don’t react to situations like we expect them to react. It’s just a weird movie. And at the center of it all, bugging out and mugging and twitching and flexing and screaming is actor James McAvoy, in what is most assuredly the most alarmingly over-the-edge performance — or performances, rather — of the year.
Now, all of this delirium may lead you, the reader, to surmise that I did not care for Split. On the contrary. I thought it was rather magnificent. Because whatever Split is, I can’t compare it to anything else. And that, as a lover of strange cinema, is exactly the reaction one dreams of having. And when we find such an anomaly in the multiplex… well, that’s something extra special.
Spit stars The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenage girls who, after accepting a ride home with one of the chirpy young ladies’ dad, are in turn doused with chloroform by a bespectacled assailant (McAvoy) who carjacks them and dumps them in some sort of basement dungeon. But this is no mere “trap the girls and rough them up” exploitation film. How could it be? It’s an M. Night Shyamalan film and, no matter what you think of his films, he is a director who refuses to pander to convention.
Now, as the trailer for Split already told you, McAvoy is wildly insane, the goggle-wearing fiend only one of the dozens of personalities that are inexplicably hard-wired into his mind and body. Soon, the terrified girls meet most — but not all — of those personas, including the wily Barry and the 9-year-old innocent, Hedwig. And while the other two teens weep in horror and react in panic, believing their fates are sealed, Taylor-Joy seems to have an odd connection with her captor(s), especially the sweet-natured Hedwig. Soon we are treated to flashback footage of Taylor-Joy’s own childhood, whose darkness might just match that of McAvoy’s broken youth.
Or maybe not.
In the middle of McAvoy fluidly — and often darkly hilariously — sliding into his different (fully realized) personalities, we cut to his therapist (Carrie‘s Betty Buckley, who despite her advanced years still has amazing legs!) who has been using the young man as her case study and who is now getting increasingly alarmed that a new personality is emerging, that of “The Beast.”
We shouldn’t say more about Split, because to appreciate the movie fully, one must not latch on to its purposely-disjointed narrative structure but rather immerse themselves in the performances and stylishly expository dialogue, which often seems like padding, but really is just a salute to the same sort of talky devices Hitchcock often used (think of the chatty old lady in The Birds, or the final 10 minutes of psychobabble in Psycho).
And while you have to fully bow down to McAvoy’s fearless and unprecedented turn as the one-man-asylum-from-Hell, I really think the best performance in the piece might stem from Taylor-Joy. As in The Witch (which Split has plenty in common with, especially if you read — like I did — The Witch as an allegory of abuse and how the mind snaps in order to protect itself), it’s the actress’ stillness, her wide eyes and trembling lips, that allow us to latch on to her thoughts, to her emotions. She’s already proven herself a master of that “inner voice” that defines the best film actors. And Shyamalan exploits her craft deftly, editing fragments of flashback against her fragile beauty to paint a wrenching portrait of a little girl who almost needed this dire situation to help quiet her own demons. It’s a stunning example of a director and and actor working symbiotically together; of flesh and technology joined organically as one. If you see the film, pay special attention to this performance. Because it is something special.
So back to that microphone in my face and that question, “Who would you recommend this to?”
Well, I guess I’d recommend it to anyone who had previously written off Shyamalan as a master filmmaker. Or to anyone who is tired of conventional genre movies. Or to anyone looking for the kind of avant garde performances that you rarely see anymore.
Or to fans of Unbreakable. And we’ll just leave that where it is…