Friday, January 20, 2017

Standard Girls-Trapped-In-A Basement Thriller 'Split' Isn't Weird Enough

This review originally appeared on

In 2015, M. Night Shyamalan returned to the horror genre with The Visit, a film that was his best in over a decade. Now he's back with Split, another horror flick that, while not quite as good as The Visit, is at least better than anything he did after 2004's The Village.

Split centers on Kevin (James McAvoy) a guy who, seemingly out of the blue, kidnaps three teenage girls after a birthday party and holds them captive in a basement room. But before too long, the girls realize they aren't just dealing with one guy. Sort of.

Kevin has dissociative identity disorder (DID), or, as it was known back in the 70's when Sally Field was starring in a movie about it, "split personalities." He reveals three of them to the girls: A nine-year-old boy named Hedwig; a strict English-woman named Patricia; and Dennis, the sadistic and fastidious man who kidnapped them.

We learn that Kevin is under the treatment of a Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, channeling her empathetic gym coach role from Carrie), who is convinced that DID is more than just a mental disorder, and can actually cause physical changes in those who have it.

As the three girls struggle to find a way out of the basement, the social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) becomes a focus, and it's revealed she has a past that might have prepared her well for just such a situation.

Taylor-Joy made her film debut in last year's The Witch, and Shyamalan films her in much the same way Witch director Robert Eggers did. There are a lot of shots of her looking directly into the camera, and her wide-set eyes manage to suck you right into the terror she's feeling.

I imagine someone with DID is an actor's dream role, and McAvoy certainly runs with it. While we learn that he harbors at least 23 different personalities, we're only shown about five of them for any length of time, and McAvoy is often able to let you know which one you're watching before he even speaks.

Shyamalan built his career on plot twists, which was both his blessing and his curse. At first he did them well (although I saw that Sixth Sense twist a mile away). But the problem with relying on gimmicks for so long is eventually, it becomes expected, and as it is with so many expectations, disappointment often follows. More than once, the twist just ended up being a sucky ending. And I don't mean to say the twist itself was badly written, or anything like that. I mean that having a bad ending literally was the twist.

But there's only one thing in Split that's really worthy of a spoiler alert, and it's not really a twist. (Just be sure to stick around a little while after the end credits start, lest you miss it.) The problem is, without any real surprises, what are we really watching? People-trapped-in-a-cellar-by-a-maniac is a horror plot that's been used countless times before. Just one year ago, there was a much more original take on the concept with 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Shyamalan doesn't do enough with the tired premise to make it truly memorable, not even bothering to give all three of the captive girls distinctive personalities of their own (couldn't Kevin have spared one?). The movie's structure mixes in flashbacks, visits to Dr. Fletcher, and scenes centered on the doctor's own life, which short-shrifts the girls and their captivity, draining their story of any real suspense. And while I would never wish for another eye-rolling Shyalaman plot twist, by the end I was missing the commitment he used to have to just stick to the weird, no matter how silly it may be.

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