Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula and. 117 mins
In the comic thriller Split, a man with multiple personalities (McAvoy) abducts three teenage girls and locks them away in a windowless, subterranean cell. Classy, eh? A premise that is both straightforwardly exploitative and trivialises mental illness. Once in the cell the girls are going to be subjected to a gruesome fate – they are going to be acted at beyond endurance. This is like a Saw movie where Jigsaw is revealed to be the undiscovered, non humourous Jim Carrey performing his showreel.
James McAvoy is the last actor you'd describe as a ham. Indeed, I'd say he was one of the best screen performers around, but the role calls on him to play a selection of the 23 trapped personalities, jumping rapidly from sinister to camp to child to female. He tries to play it as real as possible but it is written as a ham sandwich and he can't help himself. The role is effectively Mrs Doyle egging him on - go on, go on, go on, you will, you will, you will - to chew some scenery. Sure, it's just little scenery, what harm will it do?
Split is both more interesting and much duller than you'd expect – it takes the high road and the low road, but neither of them effectively. The first and most obvious expectation is that this will be an exercise in claustrophobic suspense, much like 10 Cloverfield Lane delivered last year. But no, the film is too antsy to ever stay in that cell with the girls for more than a few minutes at a time. The first chance it gets it is off around town, or flashing back into a captive's past.
The film does though appear to have some a genuine interest in the disputed field of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as something more than a convenient source of menace. It isn't predictable either: granted, there is one character whose function in the plot you will guess the moment she appears on screen but otherwise the film consistently subverts expectations. It isn't though remotely scary, which is a shock. The story of Shyamalan gradually blowing his career after The Sixth Sense has been well documented but however bad he got he was always a master of suspense.
Split has plenty of merits, (Taylor-Joy, so impressive in The Witch, is just as good here) and I dutifully noted them down while being completely disinterested in what was going on. The title may come to reflect audience reactions to it – I foresee rabid hate and enthusiasm for it. It is though slack in too many places and far too long, the sight of a director going back on himself because he can't really see a way forward. There is, in classic Shyamalan style, a little twist at the end, a didn't-see-that-coming effort that is uniquely self aggrandising.