I’m sorry, did we all forget the last ten years of Shyamalan? From “The Village” (2004) to “After Earth” (2013), his career has been reduced to the punchline that the critics saw it as. Sure, he showed promise with “The Sixth Sense” (1999), and had two films that lived up to that hype a little, but it was clear from then on that we would be seeing diminishing rewards from his work. And yet, with 2015’s “The Visit,” the world seemed back on his side.
Heralded as a return to form, “Split”, his newest film, reached 64 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, a score that had not been rivaled by other Shyamalan films since 2002’s “Sings’” which reached 74 percent. Yet, when I found myself seated in the theater, somehow slightly excited to see a Shyamalan picture, I was yet again reminded why he does not succeed. It seemed like I was alone in this assumption, his attempts to terrify me more closely resembled a half hearted swing at old comic territory.
The film chronicles the story of three teenage girls who are abducted by a man with multiple personality disorder. This man believes he is 23 different individuals, with a dangerous 24th about to come to the surface. This kind of terror, formed by neurotypical directors attempting to show mental illness, is corny at best, and offensive at worst.
Shyamalan manages to make both come through in “Split.” He demonizes, while simultaneously romanticizing, mental illness, showing Kevin, the kidnapper (played masterfully by James McAvoy), to be monstrous and evil through his personalities of Patricia and Dennis.
It isn’t enough for Shyamalan to just make mental illness appear to be a monster. Instead he chose to have a secondary character, Kevin’s psychologist (Betty Buckley), believe that those who have experienced severe trauma are more evolved than neurotypical humans. This kind of glorification is misguided and often dangerous. In this case it leads to a boring and offensive film.
McAvoy manages, somehow, to shine through all this murk and create an effective performance as he tries his damnedest to save this film. The way he switches between personalities is smooth and done with a light touch. The majority of the films best, or only good, moments are lead by, and because of, him.
McAvoy never twitches or acts out of control in an easy way, simply existing in each of these characters as fully as if each one was in a separate movie. The trio of girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula play the two lesser ones while Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead) try their hardest to keep up with his work, but ultimately do little to affect the film either positively or negatively. They simply go with the flow that McAvoy creates and consequently don’t stand out one way or the other.
This is the kind of horror film where you yell at the screen, saying “Get out of there!” or “Why would you do that?,” but it doesn’t offer any of the enjoyment one gets out of creative kills or twisted violence, cheaping out and keeping a PG-13 rating as best it can. It is a film without courage, hiding in the dark and giving weak swings at messages that fall flat due to the lack of emphasis behind them.
In a better film, one could argue that the final battle comes down to being so blinded by your own suffering that you can’t acknowledge the suffering of others, but the film just refuses to commit to anything enough for one to get a firm grasp of it. Split is not a strong follow up to Shyamalan’s return to form, instead it is just another DVD to stack onto a growing gas station counter’s supply of painlessly unenjoyable 21st century horror films and reboots.
Shyamalan never had greatness in him, and Split proves the point further with an after credits scene that has to be seen to be believed. Or better yet, google it. It’s not a film worth sitting through to get to something that will frustrate you even more.