Eye For Film >> Movies >> Split (2016) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Remember Schizo? "When the left hand doesn't know who the right hand is killing?" If you thought films built around such ludicrously distorted perspectives on mental illness had been left behind in the Seventies, here comes M Night Shyamalan to assure you that they're still very much alive. The irony of this one is that its central character (James McAvoy, who must have been desperately short of cash) supposedly has 24 separate personalities, but there's absolutely zero personality in the film.
It's a film so riddled with flaws that one might wonder if it were written by a single personality. Aside from the poorly patched plot holes, there are desperate attempts to justify a weak set-up through character work that just doesn't ring true. At the outset, McAvoy's character kidnaps three strong, healthy young women in a manner that seems feasible enough, but then he imprisons then, unshackled, in a room, and wanders into it unarmed. By now, even those who consume only mainstream Hollywood fare must be struggling to take such patronising scenarios seriously. Why don't they beat the shit out of him? They talk about it later, with one, clearly marked out as a victim of prior abuse, protesting that they might get hurt. Yet the underlying narrative of female helplessness in the face of male aggression runs throughout, even entailing a pathetic narrative about purity at the end, something every self respecting horror director ditched decades ago.
In the absence of sufficient plot to pad out the ridiculous two hour running time, we are treated to a great deal of running round the corridors and a parade of idiotic impressions by McAvoy that makes one pity the young women for being trapped in the company of an amateur dramatic society. There's a helpless little boy personality, a female personality (cue De Palma style cross-dressing clichés - even the costume designer is stuck in the Seventies), and a 'beast' that has stolen its moves from Insidious. Present to 'explain' multiple personality disorder (a diagnosis rarely made today because it was so often misapplied) is Betty Buckley's elegant elderly psychiatrist, the only dignified thing about this film. The waffle she spouts about the condition includes an assertion that different personalities can have different immune reactions (unlikely but possible, as these are related to stress) and also that they can have different cholesterol levels (about as likely as a clean shaven person switching personality in minutes and suddenly growing a great big bushy beard).
As if laying into people with MPD weren't enough, Shyamalan 'explains' his bad guy's illness by putting it all down to the trauma of childhood abuse - a real factor in some mental illness but exaggerated to a point that leads to real life abuse victims facing social exclusion because of what it's assumed they'll do. Our main heroine, meanwhile, is presented as experiencing her imprisonment and everything that goes with it as a form of catharsis that will help her come to terms with her own suffering. Because what victims really need is to suffer more..?
In recognition of the fact that it might seem this review is attacking the film for being politically incorrect, let me say this: it's not just sexist, ableist and desperately badly researched, it's also, purely and simply, not very good. Buckley and Anya Taylor-Joy turn in workable performances and the few outdoor scenes are nicely lit, but other than that there is absolutely nothing here that's deserving of praise. The sets look like cast-off Asylum locations; the sound design is grating; the direction is so derivative that you can play a little game at home by storyboarding a film on this premise and seeing how many scenes match. All this could potentially be forgivable if only it had a sense of humour, but aside from one excruciating scene of McAvoy dancing that comes across like an extra layer of ridicule, it is bereft of any attempt at merciful silliness or wit. This is Shyamalan laughing at his own joke: the idea that people who don't have to will watch this.Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2017