Horror movies need a good villain. That is, after all, what they’re all about – some individual(s) who can scare the bejesus out of an audience. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest, “Split,” gets about halfway there. It offers a great idea for a villain, but it fails to actually make him scary. In the end, it leaves the audience with more than a twinge of disappointment.
At the heart of Shyamalan’s second collaboration with Jason Blum and Blumhouse is James McAvoy’s Kevin. A sufferer of dissociative identity disorder (DID), Kevin has more than 20 different personalities some of whom are good, and some of whom are decidedly not. As the movie progresses, we learn about a handful of these personalities, how they interact with one another, and just why a cabal of them would want to kidnap three teenage girls (an act which occurs early in the film).
Assuredly not the first film to deal with DID, Shyamalan’s “Split” is still terribly engrossing as the audience attempts to decipher the reasons that this group of Kevin’s various personalities have kidnapped Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson). Part of this understanding is obtained via Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s therapist. She is a woman who knows Kevin’s various personalities and makes it her mission to try to not just help him, but to also convince the scientific world that DID is a real thing.
It is truly a fantastic setup. Shyamalan gives us intriguing characters and a wonderful opening to the story. “Split,” unfortunately, then falls down as it doesn’t have much of a place to go. Once the premise is established, there is a lot of wheel-spinning as the movie progresses towards its conclusion and the potential emergence of one more personality from within Kevin. Casey, Marcia, and Claire are sometimes more than just damsels-in-distress, and watching them contemplate options and attempt to execute them works, but the absurdity of them needing to take off various portions off their clothing at the direction of Kevin feels like the worst sort of pandering .
The best moments in “Split” are the discussions that revolve around just how Kevin’s multiple personalities work, with the explanation being offered that all the personalities in a room and whomever is in charge standing in front of the light. It is a description which instantly makes sense to an audience, something which can immediately be pictured, but sadly it is also where the discussion begins and ends. There is no digging deeper, no going past it. Essentially then, it is a similar problem to the movie as a whole – it all feels like a great beginning but it stops after that.
McAvoy feels hemmed in by this as well. He is able to slip between these personalities with ease, but rather than the effect being scary, too often it comes off as humorous. Before he even opens his mouth, the audience regularly knows which personality is in charge due to the clothes McAvoy is wearing, but this too feels like it is more played for laughs than serious. Because of this he becomes rather difficult to fear, diminishing the tension that the movie requires to thrive.
One walks away from “Split” feeling as though it comes so terribly close to being great but just can’t get there… mostly because it doesn’t know where “there” is. Beyond that, while the elements to be a great horror/thriller are all present, the mix feels off.
photo credit: Universal Pictures