It’s fitting that a film dramatizing dissociative identity disorder should seem a little at war with itself. The film at times quite deftly bounces between genres and tones. The scenes vary wildly, sometimes filled with Hitchcockian suspense interspersed with laughs. Other times the film dips in to more modern monster movie tropes. Split ultimately juggles these swings in mood and style with varying levels of success.
The opening sequence does a fine job introducing McAvoy’s quick efficient danger in to the self-absorbed but mostly harmless lives of the three main protagonists. This is followed by a fantastic opening credits sequence. Full disclosure, I’m a huge sucker for a cool opening credits sequence. I love the way a great opening credits sequence can take what is essentially a “by-the-book” mandate and use it to establish the aesthetics of the world you’re being dropped in.
From there, Director M. Night Shyamalan succeeds in parsing out information to the audience on a need-to-know basis, at least in the beginning. He shows us the world outside his dank prison/basement just as the audience begins to feel claustrophobic. He shows us other sides of “Dennis”, just when we begin to think we have him figured out. However, after the first few reveals, the film seems to coast to an inevitable conclusion.
McAvoy is stellar in his performance. He’s the main attraction here, and where lesser performances expose the weaknesses in the structure and some of the writing, McAvoy really elevates almost every scene he’s a part of. Slight tweaks in performance could have resulted in Mrs. Doubtfire and Simple Jack impressions, instead, the various personalities feel, if not real, than at least fun. McAvoy is able to convey shifts in demeanor and character with incredible subtly when needed, and jarringly when useful.
Also notable is the performance from 2016’s The Witch, Ana Taylor-Joy. Still a relative newcomer, Taylor-Joy portrays our outcast heroine with stoic determination, despite being given frustratingly little to do. Taylor-Joy’s character, Casey, ends up spending most of the movie doing exactly as she is told, even as those around her are cordoned off and even killed. The end result is more frustrating than empowering.
The end of the film of course may be what is most notable here. Shyamalan reveals that everything you have seen is directly connected to another film of his, Unbreakable, a film that many of his fans have been clamoring for a sequel to since shortly after its release. The result is mixed. Initially, the secrecy is impressive, especially in a digital age where information can be searched for and found almost immediately. The connection is well-done, using Unbreakable’s score to foreshadow the reveal seconds before you even realize it is taking place. And of course it is a joy to revisit Unbreakable’s past protagonist, David Dunn, as played by Bruce Willis, however brief it may be.
What’s worrying is that the Shyamalan that exists today is not necessarily the same Shayamaln that existed 15 years ago. And that’s not necessarily all bad. A series of large-scale box-office failures forced Shyamalan to revisit his smaller budget styles to much success. The Visit was a quiet victory, easing the audience to the idea of a return from the director, and Split is a continuation of that idea. However, by returning to a (now) franchise that he was famous for may be too much too soon.
The cynical side of me worries that we are finally getting the sequel we want, but for the wrong reasons. “Cinematic Universe” is a buzz-phrase that gets thrown around by studios now. Even this weekend’s other offering, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, plays with the idea of a Cinematic Universe, reintroducing Ice Cube and Vin Diesel to the same world. Fast and the Furious used this to some degree. The forthcoming Mummy movie plans on establishing a Cinematic Universe. And of course you have the two main tent-poles of Marvel and DC all establishing Cinematic Universes to varying degrees of success.
A successful Cinematic Universe can mean big money for a studio, and turns Summer Popcorn Flicks in to capital “E” Events. However, poorly executed runs at a franchise can also result in devastating failure for the studio, and disappointment for the audience. And although it’s presumptuous to assume that a series is headed in either direction after only a second entry, I am looking forward to what comes next, but with much trepidation.
I can only hope that the next film is able to reach its potential in ways that its character of The Beast has, but the film ultimately did not.