Review/Thoughts: Split [2016]

a review by the Crow.

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OPENING THOUGHTS

Manoj N. Shyamalan. Oh, how overrated you’ve been in my corvid eyes. This crow has only ever liked one movie you’ve made so far.

While a fine movie, I never quite got the whole hubbub over The Sixth Sense. Signs was again a fine movie, but personally, I couldn’t give a toss about it. The first movie I ever watched by you in the theatres was The Village. And oh goodness gracious me, that was a load of tosh and you know it. Things were going okay until you kicked it in the nads, pissed all over it, and lit it aflame. And what was The Lady in the Water, Night? What in the fucking heavens-and-hells was that, Night? I wish I was in this guy’s shoes so I could hold up that little piece of [REDACTED FOR EVERYONE’S SANITY] in a little crime-scene bag.

And to your benefit, I watched The Last Airbender without having watched the series first (with some foreknowledge of what to expect, but naught much more). And it was… yep: it was pretty terrible. It was only later, when I watched the series in full, that I realised what a crime that movie was. To your credit: I thought you really tried, but that project was pretty much doomed to fail from the start.

Apart from the one I’ve not mentioned yet, I skipped the rest of your movies, Night.

I heard The Visit was good, and a “return-to-form”. But from what I’ve heard since, it’s definitely a skip for me.

Director M. Night Shyamalan poses for a portrait during a press day promoting his new film

However, do I hold this against your latest movie?

No. No I do not. You deserve every single right to make a movie the way in which you see fit. People say you had a certain mojo. I didn’t see it apart from the one time. While your earlier movies had an odd touch of class to them, none of them broke through the barrier for me apart from that one time. And what a great time that was. For years, I’d not watched it. And when I did, I just…

So yes: you had mojo. You’ve always had a keener eye for characters than most people at the helm. Am I ever going to see that again? Will I ever see that mojo spark against the dark?

Well… let me turn to the audience from here on out, Night.

Two things I must point out before I go into this review:

I only watched this movie because the Magpie had shown me an exceptionally crappy film (she’ll do a review on it soon, if that can even be done), and I was snatching at something to go and see. This was the only one we could’ve gone to which I at least knew was by someone who’d done something good, once, caution aside.

I also had a very… unique thing happen to me. This crow doesn’t give a fruit-fly’s fucks about spoilers. But when I was given a huge spoiler for this movie (while just about to start watching it, nonetheless; and no, it’s not the M. Night “twist” being spoilt that I’m mad about), I quickly started re-evaluating that policy. It hasn’t affected my viewing of the movie as far as the rating goes, but it was something I’d have loved to be surprised by. This major spoiler (which I’ve been holding on to for so long, and have kept myself from writing about at all) will not be covered in the “plot” section. There will be ample markers to warn you before I go into it.

You know what? How about instead of me just banging this little tin drum this movie’s got me worked up over, we just jump in?


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GENERAL THOUGHTS ON THE PLOT

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SOME [MINOR] SPOILERS | THE NEXT SECTIONS WILL CONTAIN MAJOR SPOILERS, THOUGH (A click through will be provided before the spoilers begin to the final rating).

Split opens with three teenage girls being kidnapped by a strange man (James McAvoy). They are chucked into (what I assume to be) a basement-room by a series of captors.

We quickly learn that each of these near-disparate “captors” are – in reality – different personalities inhabiting the same body – that of a young man named Kevin Randall Crumb. Among the major personalities: there’s “Dennis“, an OCD-ridden, slightly-too-fond-of-younger-girls handyman; “Patricia“, a strict, fanatic nun-sort who brings up random parables about animals at times (it’s later explained why); and “Hedwig“, a nine year old child who likes rap music and “dancing”. Apart from them, there’s “Barry“, the personality who should be the dominant (a pretty nice bloke, too) and a few others (like “Orwell“, who I’d have liked to see a little more of).

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Barry has been shut out of control by the other three and is being masqueraded in front of “their” therapist Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) to make it seem like all’s kosher by Dennis. Dr Fletcher, however, thanks to subtle tells from Dennis (thanks to his OCD), begins to suspect that she might be talking to one of the alters inhabiting the young man’s brain. And she correctly guesses who it is.

From here, the movie can be best worked out as having three distinct plot threads, which all collide at the movie’s very end. One is the story of the three girls (which I’ll consider the movie’s core plot); the second is the backstory of Casey – one of the kidnapped girls, and the heroine of this movie; and the third is to do with Dr Fletcher – which could very well have been the unmaking of the movie until one sees it through to the end.

As the girls are kept in the basement (in our first plot thread), trying to conjure up methods of escape, they are told of a ceremony surrounding the coming of the coming of “the Beast” – which is the reason for their being here. You see: the beast comes and eats up “impure” little girls. And oh, he’s coming. And oh, he’s hungry.

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But… what is the Beast?!

Apparently, the Beast is much larger than “Dennis”, and Dennis is the biggest of the people he “lives with”. He has large, sharp claws; has jide tough as a rhino’s; thick, matted hair that falls in a long mane; can climb up walls much like a lizard; and he is insatiably hungry for impure girls. But as to his true nature: we don’t find out any other specifics up until the final third the movie.

Two of the girls attempt escape: one by squirrelling through an opening in the ceiling and making a run for it before being chased down by Dennis; and the other by bashing Patricia over the head before making a run for it. They are kept in separate rooms following their attempts, and Dennis tells the final girl (see what I did there?) that the Beast is coming for her. Eventually, our final girl (Casey) makes an attempt as well: manipulating the gullible Hedwig into taking her out of her room, grabbing a walkie-talkie, and managing to make an apparently futile plea for help with the outside world before being shut down by Patricia. She is returned to her room and is told it won’t be long, now. The Beast is almost here.

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Now, this is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, with whom I happen to share a special day, it seems). In our second plot thread, we see her backstory and how it links to her current problem.

Right from the very first scenes of the movie, she is pointed out as an outsider amongst her classmates; following their kidnapping, she comes off as resigned, and a little too level-headed for her to be “normal”. And we slowly start finding out why as the movie progresses. Along with scenes from her past, the main plot of the movie itself serves as a vessel for the completion of her own story (and writing of this calibre always makes me happy, however it may come).

Once we find out the reason for her character’s foundation: it all makes perfect sense, and Casey instantly becomes one of the best people to find themselves in such a situation. It’s not that she’s some random who’s been put under threat – this is a person who has never known any other kind of life.

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In the third and final major plot thread, we follow Dr Fletcher, who – apart from her time prying Dennis out of his performance of Barry – is trying to push a scientific hypothesis that she finally claims she has enough science to start a conversation about. Now this is where the movie could’ve easily gone off the rails (it points to the bad kind of Shyamalamadingdong-ing), but it’s something I’ll leave out until the spoilers section so as to keep things in line here. All I can say is that this plot thread is the least focused on by the movie, and for very good reason.

However, there is one thing I have to point out, here:

This movie hinges on it’s least significant plot thread. That third plot thread that is treated essentially as an “as-you-know” element is very, very important to tying up the ending. It’s easy for me to just say: “go with it, just let the movie’s universe have its own rules”, but without certain foreknowledge of M. Night’s prior work, the full enjoyment of the movie might be a little hard for people to access. That’s the only thing that makes this movie incomplete.

It’s the movie’s greatest strength, and also it’s greatest weakness to those not in the know.

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However, overall, even with that little thing that might confuse first-time viewers, I liked Split. It’s a fine movie by all standards, even with the Shyamalamadingdong-ing and everything going on.

As a quick note, before we get into full spoiler territory: The performances are awesome – even James McAvoy. To be honest: I’ve never rated him that highly, but oh holy balls does he knock it out of the park, here. This is also my first time seeing Anya Taylor-Joy, and she does a really good job as well.

Now, that said…

If you wish to avoid spoilers, click here to skip through to the “Closing Thoughts” section.


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EXECUTION/THOUGHTS

And once more: Here is a MASSIVE spoiler alert. This section is for those who want to know my full thoughts about the movie.

What follows will ruin the movie if you haven’t seen it. The only way it won’t affect you is if you haven’t watched the movie I hold in highest regard out of Shyamalan’s repertoire: Unbreakable.

Unbreakable is highly recommended watching before Split because Split is a sequel to it.

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I really, really appreciate the fact that this was kept out of the movie’s marketing (even though they fucked up with the whole “the 24th is about to be unleashed” bit, in my opinion).

As a hard-line science fanatic, the whole people-can-change-their-physiology/biochemistry-through-the-power-of-belief thing is the sort of thing which could’ve really put me off a bit, and might’ve very well ruined the movie for me. However, from a writer’s perspective: if the movie stays true to the rules of its own universe, it’s all fine. It’s a bit of a toss-up, really, but while watching Split, I went with it, because why shouldn’t I? It’s not realistic, but it’s something that I think I can put within the realm of things if you really, really stretch reality. As long as it doesn’t go and break its own rules or start out as completely stupid, I’m fine with it.

But that’s also the only thing that explains a tiny little issue I had with Unbreakable. David (Bruce Willis)’s ESP power might very well stem from the same sort of self-belief that powers Kevin in Split.

And oh, my birds, David Dunn is in Split! Sure, it’s only for a short while, and he only gets the one line (the final two words of this movie are the exact ones from Unbreakable). What that means for the future is quite apparent: this is Shyamalan’s superhero universe. And what a better universe it is compared to the fare we have about right now.

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Here, we have true superheroes and villains, far more believable than the numpties we usually see on screen. If anything should be produced in this genre right now, it should be about characters like these. This is far, far superior to the Marvel hegemony and the DC dissidents. Split could very well be the best superhero-genre movie since The Dark Knight. And just like The Dark Knight wasn’t a full-on superhero movie, but rather a drama with colourful characters, Split isn’t overly flashy, either.

The explanation of how these powers are manifesting is a bit weird, sure, but this is also Shyamalan’s superhero universe. This is perhaps the least weird explanation I’ve seen for the origins of characters of this type.

And with Christian motifs running through the movie, and Shyamalan’s past dabbling in matters of faith and belief, Split again serves as an interesting look at such matters. It’s not as heavy-handed as Signs, and certainly not about Christianity, but it’s almost a refreshing take on faith-in-oneself.

And just as I’ve always said that the very idea of belief can be a dangerous thing, poor Kevin and those around him are threatened by it.

To address the usual elephant in the room when it comes to Shyamalan: there are quite a few moments in this movie which could be considered “twists”. But the one that really makes it as a significant moment for me is the reversal of the final girl trope.

Casey is a solid protagonist (well, one of the two), and Kevin/the alters is an amazingly rendered character. To talk a little more about Kevin/the alters, though: I have a great deal of sympathy for the character. Throughout the movie, a repeating theme is how he feels let down by the structures that are meant to protect him and “the horde”. Even Dr Fletcher fails him to a degree that is almost ludicrous (although, what can one person do in the face of such power?).

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Now, I’d like to take a moment to talk about how amazing the choice to cast James McAvoy as Kevin/the alters is. This is the guy who’s playing young-Xavier in the X-Men series. A man who stands up for mutant rights, and whose best friend/archnemesis Magneto’s entire ambition is to see a world ruled by mutants – where mutants will no longer be treated as the “other”. And they go and cast him as this?! That’s just frickin’ amazing!

Also: I loved the little touch about Kevin last remembering the 18th of September, 2014. Remember the Scottish Referendum? I’m sure that was no accident.

There’s certainly a lot more I want to talk about in regards to this movie, but I think I might leave those thoughts out for a different post about the future possibilities for the shared universe M. Night Shyamalan has created.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

Shhh, it’s okay. There are no more spoilers here.

Split is a very good movie, and comes highly recommended from this crow. It might be a bit dampened for people not familiar with Shyamalan’s prior work, but even then it holds its own. Is this a return to form? Yes. Yes it is.
I expect something good from him next. May the Night not let us down again.

Final rating: 7.5/10

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