Friday, January 20, 2017



Split is fractured.  It begins strongly, then meanders into a muddled mess that seems to have nowhere to go -- until it finally proves that perception wrong.  M. Night Shyamalan knows exactly where he's taking this movie, and whether you like the destination will depend a lot on ...

Well, gosh, I can't say anymore, because for some people -- who frankly probably already know what it is I'm talking about -- that would be cheating.  But to me, the movie is cheating.

The shame is that it begins so well, contains more than a little bit of cinematic style, and features two really compelling performances.

The showier one is James McAvoy as Kevin Crumb, a working-class guy whose therapist (Betty Buckley) has documented 23 distinct personalities.  The movie shows us about five of them, and while none of them are quite as carefully nuanced as Sally Field in Sybil or Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve, they're distinct enough that it's a wicked little joy to see McAvoy having such fun in the role.

Less flashy but equally impressive is Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three girls who Crumb abducts as the film opens.  Taylor-Joy's character Casey is awkward, withdrawn and unpopular, but the two social butterflies who are held captive with her quickly realize she's got smart survival instincts.

A long, long, long set of flashbacks, which throw Split ever more out of focus, reveal why she's so crafty and so tortured.  It's an unsavory and lurid sort of backstory, presented with cavalier dismissal -- in Split, the painful and cruel reality of child molestation is used as a plot device in service of what appears to be a straightforward thriller.

But Split was not made by the director who turned in compact, satisfying little thrillers like Devil and The Visit.  This is the Shyamalan who is incapable of doing anything without strained foreboding and a kind of stunning sense of self-importance.  His efforts to bring some sort of weighty meaning to Split recall the dull, spiritless "thrills" of his grandest disappointments, like The Village, Signs and, mostly, Unbreakable, where everyone spoke in hushed tones because everything was significant.

Instead of a neat and dastardly thriller in which young women have to escape the clutches of a maniac with 23 personalities -- as if that wouldn't be enough to sustain a movie -- Split builds up some goodwill with its early touches of studied (and actually pretty impressive) Hitchcockian flair only to squander it all on Shyamalan's deep and abiding affection for ... M. Night Shyamalan.

About midway through Split, there's a quick and unusual reference to "The Beast" and the belief that one of Kevin's personalities has of a deeper and more sinister meaning for abducting the girls.  The guy is presented as crazy, but ever so slowly -- and not the good kind of slowly -- this mystical, long-winded mythology is going to be the story and the movie wants to ascribe some huge reason for his behavior and his actions.

The movie has no idea how to establish or sustain its grander notion, though, and resorts to the worst movie crutch of all: extensive exposition through dialogue.  A long scene of impossible dialogue between Kevin and his therapist, who has some unusual notions of multiple personality disorder, is too much for even McAvoy and Buckley, and brings the movie to a grinding halt.

That's about the time when Split breaks away from being like the tight, lean little thrillers Shyamalan's been making and becomes more like the ponderous, dull sort of non-thriller that he blew his reputation on.  Split turns out to have a lot in common with the dreadful Lady in the Water and The Happening (that was the one in which the bad guys were ... trees): It talks and talks and talks when it should be revving up the action. Toward the end, Casey finally confronts Kevin, and just when the movie should be getting spectacularly weird, Kevin stops to explains himself.

Split ends with a head-scratching final scene that would be entirely meaningless on its own, but it finally throws in a last-second coda that Shyamalan thinks is one of his used-to-be-fun "twists," but without which absolutely none of the rest of the movie would make sense.

Not that it makes sense anyway. Split continues Hollywood's obsession with creating movies that have some kind of "connected universe," insisting that movies cannot be enjoyed on their own, they must have some secret hidden meaning in which everything relates to everything else -- as if it turned out the Bates Motel was right off the road Scottie drove to take Madeleine to the Mission, which was where Roger O. Thornhill had gotten married to his first wife.

If all of that sounds like gibberish to you, that's because it is -- and that, it turns out, is exactly what Split is, too.

Viewed Jan. 20, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


2 / 5

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