“Split” is more comical than frightening

In Art, Arts & Entertainment, Film & TV, Reviews
(Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

There was an old Adult Swim “Robot Chicken” sketch that featured a parody of M. Night Shyamalan in a short called “The Twist.” Every few moments, something absurd would happen to the little stop-motion animated Shyamalan, leading him to look at the camera and declare “What a twist!”

Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Shyamalan’s latest film “Split” is that the narrative doesn’t feel as though it is just there to lay the foundation for a big twist at the end. While there are many significant reveals that grow increasingly weirder as the film picks up momentum, the story is first and foremost that of a man named Kevin (played by James McAvoy), who has 23 unique personalities residing inside of him.

It would be more accurate to say that McAvoy plays all of the characters who reside inside of Kevin’s body, cycling between all of the personalities with near flawless execution. Despite this brilliant performance, “Split” suffers from a poorly conceived script and a final act that is more comical than it is frightening.

It is both a blessing and a curse that McAvoy is so convincing. He gives his all in every single scene, even when the dialogue given to him is so over the top as to be downright silly. The best moments are when McAvoy is allowed time to breathe and interact with the film’s three heroines. The wide-eyed horror and sympathy of Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), is an immediately relatable character. Moments where Casey speaks with the little boy who resides in Kevin, Hedwig, yields real heart and drama that is severely lacking in most horror films.

The same cannot be said, however, on the film’s shaky premise. Kevin having 23 unique personalities that can take control of his body and interact with one another is bold and high-concept, but the script requires such large leaps of credibility that the plot just comes across as absurd. What could have been an effectively small scale thriller, much like last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” gets blown so out of proportion that it lacks genuine suspense.

It is a shame that McAvoy isn’t given a better script to warrant his stunning performance.

Then comes the big twist, which is different in nature than what Shyamalan has delivered in the past. Without spoiling a single detail, the ending reveal will only work for a small percentage of audiences. Fans who have followed Shyamalan from the beginning of his career may likely proclaim “What a twist!” while everyone else may ponder “What twist?”

Fans of character-driven psychological thrillers will find a lot to like from both McAvoy and Taylor-Joy’s performances, but the film’s constant desire to go outright batty in its plotting and characterization makes it difficult to recommend. “Split” will play better on home streaming devices, where viewers can gawk at a couple of exceptional performances and then fiddle on their cell phones whenever the story goes off on one of its many unnecessary tangents.
It isn’t Shyamalan’s best, but it is far from his worst.

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