After making a couple of big-budget critical and commercial bombs such as The Last Airbender and After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan is taking a new approach to his filmmaking. In late 2015, he partnered with Blumhouse Productions to make The Visit. This partnership is significant because Blumhouse movies are typically low-budget productions that require a lower box office payout to be considered successful. As such, The Visit was a found-footage horror-comedy (that didn’t really do either very well).
Split has a much more cinematic aesthetic, but the low-budget nature is still very evident. The movie is an abduction narrative, and most of the film takes place within one building. In the opening sequence, three high school girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula and Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped by a calm and creepy James McAvoy. However, to differentiate Split in the advertising, it is revealed that McAvoy’s character(s) has Dissociative Identity Disorder (we’ll refer to them as Kevin, but eight of Kevin’s 24 personalities appear during the film). While underground, Kevin tells the girls that they are to be fed to “The Beast,” which is alluded to being one of Kevin’s personalities.
And right from the get-go, we find the most significant problem with the film. Split has a really confusing and problematic relationship with mental illness. One of the movie’s subplots involves a Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) who has regular appointments with Kevin. Dr. Fletcher believes that individuals who have DID are not less than (the movie continuously shames the audience for looking down upon mental illness), but actually supernatural entities. I know. Written by M. Night, he seems to be arguing that the audience needs to not be prejudiced while portraying mental illness as monstrous.
This confounding reframe allows for the filmmakers to create the impression that they care about mental illness. Let’s be clear in the fact that they don’t. Split is a horror film where a single person isn’t the villain; mental illness is the villain. And this exploitative nature is evident is just about every aspect of the movie. The other subplot involves flashbacks to one of the girls learning how to hunt, creating a parallel between hunting women and animals. Even though the kidnapped women are at the center of the film, the movie reduces them to their trauma. This objectification continues until the movie eventually reaches its anti-climactic, morally confused confusion. Split is really gross, y’all.
Not even James McAvoy can redeem this movie from its core concept. In fact, while his presence remains strong, I think his performance only builds into some of the gross stereotypes the movie would like to believe it’s avoiding. McAvoy constantly mugs for the camera and creates a variety of characters that build in intensity. But at the end of the day if all you are doing is creating distinct characters, that’s not all that impressive. That’s the minimum requirement.
McAvoy underwhelmed me, but I continue to be impressed by Anya Taylor-Joy. Split is her third leading role she’s had in a horror film (following The Witch and Morgan) and her bug-eyed gaze remains haunting in every frame. Although her character is still written in a one-dimensional fashion (I don’t think it’s her fault, there’s a constant barrage of flashbacks that form her character), she makes this tedious film enjoyable for moments at a time.
Still, any small moment I liked in Split left me feeling very gross afterward. For the first half of the film, I felt like I was just watching an extended version of the trailer. Despite the complete reliance on exposition, no new relevant information is conveyed. And for the second half of the film, I was so frustrated and exhausted I just wanted the movie to be over. There are some technical achievements – namely, the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis (It Follows) is pretty well done – but the movie is hard to watch. Rest assured, M. Night Shyamalan is not back. He just went from making bad movies on a big-budget to bad movies on a low budget.