SPLIT (2017) – Entertaining Thriller Not Frightening Enough

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SPLIT (2017), the new thriller by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, about a man with multiple personalities who abducts and imprisons three teenage girls, is an attempt to expand on the PSYCHO format.  Rather than a psychopath ruled by two personalities, let’s give audiences one who’s ruled by 24 of them.  Does it all work?  Up to a point.

Yup, I’m— split— on SPLIT. (heh heh.)

This one gets down to business right away.  The film opens with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) about to be driven home from a party by Claire’s dad, but they don’t get that far.  That’s because a man (James McAvoy) overpowers the dad and enters the car where he proceeds to knock out the girls with some sort of gas.

When the girls awake, they find themselves in what appears to be an underground bunker. They are being held prisoner by a man who refers to himself as Dennis.  Later, they hear a woman’s voice outside the door, and the girls call to her for help.  When the woman enters, the girls are shocked to see that it is Dennis dressed in woman’s clothing, although he’s no longer Dennis but Patricia.

The girls quickly realize that they are dealing with someone with multiple personalities.

We learn more about Dennis—whose real name is Kevin— and his other personalities as he visits his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Meanwhile, the girls try to find a way to escape, and they see as their best chance to take advantage of Hedwig, the 9 year-old personality inside Kevin’s body.  But they need to escape quickly, because Hedwig constantly speaks of “the Beast” who he says is on his way and will do terrible things to the girls.

M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), UNBREAKABLE (2000), and SIGNS (2002), but then went on a prolonged slump which lasted more than a decade, bounced back last year with the very good thriller THE VISIT (2015).  SPLIT, while not bad, is a step back from THE VISIT.

While I liked the story in SPLIT, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.  And rather than growing more tense as it went along it became tedious.

Part of the problem is the film’s trailer gave away way too much about this movie’s plot.  There were a lot of things that happened in this movie— Patricia’s first appearance, for instance— that I would have felt different about had I not known about them already.  This is also a case where the trailer is actually better than the movie.

But the lack of suspense isn’t just the fault of the trailer.  Shyamalan deserves some of the blame.  While the premise is certainly interesting, and McAvoy’s performance as all those multiple personalities is exceptional, not a lot happens in this movie.  I didn’t feel the suspense at all, and neither did the audience.  I saw it in a pretty packed theater, and I don’t think there was one gasp or scream to be heard.

The other thing about SPLIT that impeded the suspense is Dennis and friends keep talking about “the Beast” who is coming to harm the girls, and really, there isn’t a whole lot of build-up to this beast.  This should have been terribly frightening, but it’s not.  Worse, not only isn’t there build-up, but once the Beast does show up he’s about as scary as some of McAvoy’s X-MEN mutant friends.

That being said, the acting here is very good.  Hands down my favorite part of SPLIT is James McAvoy’s performance.  He is amazing here, although once again unfortunately we see nearly every personality he plays given away in the film’s trailer, which hurts more than helps.

I also enjoyed Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, although she gave a stronger performance in last year’s  THE WITCH (2016).  Of course, her role in THE WITCH was a more challenging one, but she’s still very good here in SPLIT.

And while I did like Taylor-Joy as Casey, I wanted to know more about the character.  I think the film would have been stronger had more time been spent on Casey.  We learn about her past in the flashbacks to when she was a little girl, but I wanted to know more about her in the here and now.  She’s a very interesting character, and she and Kevin both share a troubled childhood, a bond which could have been played up more.

Haley Lu Richardson is very good as Claire as well, although she gave an even better performance in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016).  I actually thought that Claire made the most sense of the three girls.  When they talked about what they needed to do to survive, it was Claire who talked about fighting back and hitting Kevin hard to escape, while Casey said that didn’t make sense and that they needed to hang back and think their way out of this.  I thought Claire had the right idea, although in this story it’s Casey who has more success.

Betty Buckley is also very good as Dr. Karen Fletcher.

Shyamalan’s screenplay was okay.  I liked the premise, but ts execution not so much. It had plenty of opportunities to become a suspenseful movie, but it didn’t.  The film also seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  It just sort of meanders along telling its story.

Actually, the most frightening part of the story are the flashbacks showing Casey’s past, and the most disturbing scene is the revelation at the end of the movie about Casey’s present life.  I found that far more disturbing than any of the traditional horror stuff involving  Kevin and his multiple personalities.

My favorite part of the screenplay is summed up in a line which the Beast utters to Casey near the end, when he sees the scars on her body and says something to the effect that it’s the broken who are blessed, which brings tears to her eyes.  It’s a theme that runs through the movie, often voiced by Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher that what we see as weaknesses or disabilities in people like Kevin, may actually be strengths and things that make them superior.

I liked this part of the screenplay.  I liked McAvoy’s performance.  But I never felt frightened by the main premise of this movie:  the three girls being held prisoner by a madman.  Those scenes I just didn’t find that intense, and so in spite of the things I liked about this one, it didn’t possess enough of an edge for me to really love it.

There is a surprise cameo at the end by a major star, but seriously, this “twist” did little for me.

Long story short, I liked SPLIT, but I thought I would like it more.  Not once during this movie did I feel like I was on the edge of my seat, and this is in spite of a fairly interesting story and an amazing performance by James McAvoy.

SPLIT is a decent movie, but it’s simply not edgy enough to succeed as a hard-hitting thriller.

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