I like it when films commit to a particular style or premise rather than trying to be an amalgamation of half-baked ideas. Films like Green Room
or Don’t Breathe worked (for the most part) because they dispensed with extensive exposition in favor of letting the scenarios drive the stories. I’m not necessarily saying I always want minimal character development and thematic depth–nor am I implying that certain filmmakers can’t juggle multiple elements extremely well–but if your focuses as a filmmaker aren’t those things, then that’s 100% fine with me. However, if I get the sense that a film is trying to explore them, then part of my evaluation will include the level to which it succeeds. So, while Split deserves credit for going below the surface to unpack the effects of trauma on individuals, it also deserves some criticism for its reliance on thinly drawn characters, flashbacks, and parallels in order to make its point. Shyamalan might’ve been better served going all out on the horror element or the thriller element or the character element. Pick one.
In addition, I appreciate his attempt to engage with the mental illness aspect in a way, but I don’t think he’s the filmmaker to do so. I want films that either handle the topic in a respectful and nuanced manner or ratchet up the absurdity to a point where you can’t take it seriously. This film certainly gets quite absurd by the end, but the misguided attempts to meet halfway leave an icky aftertaste. Yes, this isn’t supposed to be a deep and realistic portrait of the disorder or of trauma, but my problem here is that I think Shyamalan thinks it is on some level. Make exploitative films all you want; just don’t pretend like it’s anything other than a ridiculous piece of B-level entertainment.
I’ve spent a while criticizing the film, but I did enjoy it. The score and photography are incredible, as is usually the case with these types of “claustrophobic thrillers”. In addition, the three main performances are pitch perfect (the other two captured girls are essentially irrelevant in this). Taylor-Joy continues to impress, her wide-eyed character hiding a dark past. Buckley brings warmth as Dr. Karen Fletcher, a psychologist who takes interest in the many identities of McAvoy’s character. And of course, McAvoy shifts among those identities with such ease and believability, and he’s definitely having a lot of fun with the material. Very early contender for performance of the year. Also, the final twist is a hell of a lot of fun. If you like Shyamalan, see this just for that scene alone.
Also: FANTASTIC opening credits sequence.