With Split, a thriller about the controversial mental illness known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), writer/director M. Night Shyamalan rather unfortunately reveals that he doesn’t know the difference between a film that’s complicated and a film that’s confusing. The former opens dialogues, welcomes repeat viewings, allows for speculation, and is generally very stimulating. The latter is self-indulgent, impenetrable, and repulsive, for the intention isn’t to engage the audience but rather to keep them at arm’s length away from actually understanding the story.
Shyamalan, I have no doubt, believes he has made a cerebral film worthy of study. He has, in fact, made an obscure film that cannot be deconstructed or analyzed, except in the absence of logic.
Given its subject matter and the character development, one can see how Shyamalan could have simplified the story into an entertainment along the lines of Identity or The Ward. Alas, he embraces the very narrative impossibilities that have defined several of his previous films – implausible plot lines, ponderous lines of dialogue, and nonsensical, unsatisfying twists that invalidate everything we’ve seen and heard up to that point. Being familiar with his filmography, I guess I should have come to this realization long before actually seeing Split. But silly me, I had hope that he would get it right this time. I have that same hope going into all of his films. So far, no such luck. When will I ever learn?
The central character is Kevin, who because of childhood traumas has developed twenty-three different personalities. The personalities we’re shown, along with the original Kevin, are played by James McAvoy. This is, of course, a testament to his acting talent; we see him effortlessly alternate between a gay fashion designer, a compulsive neat freak, an exacting woman, and a nine-year-old boy, all with different names, accents, and speech cadences. I was reminded of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the underrated supernatural thriller 6 Souls. In McAvoy’s case, the problem is that his convincing performances are at the mercy of a story that’s anything but convincing.
At the start of the film, Kevin, or one of his other personalities, kidnaps three teenage girls in broad daylight, specifically in the parking lot of a Philadelphia shopping center. He places them in grungy underground rooms filled with cots, desks, and cabinets. The actual location isn’t given until the end of the film, so I guess that means I can’t give away that particular detail. Anyway, two of the girls are best friends who really aren’t given all that much to do. The real focus is on the third girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who’s introduced as the unpopular outsider, developed as the only captive smart enough to stay calm and accordingly strategize, and incrementally revealed through flashback sequences with her father and uncle to be a traumatized victim.
A subplot follows Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who not only believes that DID is a genuine disorder but has also theorized that, in extreme cases, patients suffering from it can actually bring about physical transformations. Indeed, Kevin’s various personalities, who collectively call themselves the Horde, all talk about the impending arrival of a new personality that will empower them all, the Beast. Okay, but how does any of this relate to Casey? The only explanation I can come up with is one that requires the total dismissal of everything revealed to us in the opening sequence, along with all sequences featuring the three girls sharing the same space. While it’s more of an implication, as opposed to the overtness of the twists in The Sixth Sense and The Village, it’s nevertheless an implication that doesn’t make sense.
Now let me discuss the final shot … to the extent that I can without any spoilers. Let’s just say that a very specific reference is made during the shot, and a familiar face is seen. I swear to God, if Shyamalan is using Split as the catalyst for a series of interlaced films a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the DC Extended Universe, I’m liable to start screaming and not stop until either I paralyze my vocal chords or collapse from a lack of air, whichever comes first. The absolute last thing we need is yet another movie franchise. I can no longer keep up with the franchises we already have, on top of which, it’s just too much at this point. Shyamalan has made mistakes, but if this is going in the direction I think it’s going, he has made his biggest one yet.