Shyamalan's "Split" Less Than The Sum Of Its Secondhand Parts

Warning: major “Split” spoilers below.

It’s an odd thing to see a once-celebrated artist lose all feel for what made him or her celebrated in the first place. In the case of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, it’s been a long, turbulent slide. The eighteen years since his magnum opus, “The Sixth Sense,” reached pop ubiquity have been surprisingly kind to the film – it wields as much of an emotional wallop as ever – while its creator’s once fierce aptitude for mood and characters and, yes, twists, has broken down into mush. Mush like embarrassing eco-horror movie “The Happening,” the storytelling equivalent of an exploded ballpoint. Now, after ten years of continually going back to the same splintered drawing board, Shyamalan has sheepishly gone back to the well.

Psychological thriller “Split” is, as revealed in its final moments, a spin-off from the writer-director’s well-received 2000 superhero drama “Unbreakable.” In a scene ripped from the playbook of Marvel Studios, now famous for their universe-building stingers, Shyamalan dollies his camera through a diner as a news anchor recaps what we’ve just seen: the story of a kidnapper with dissociative identity disorder. Then, a nameless woman in the diner speaks: “This is like that crazy guy in the wheelchair that they put away fifteen years ago. And they gave him a funny name, too,” she says woodenly, to no one in particular. “What was it?”

Suddenly, Bruce Willis’ bald head emerges from behind her. “Mr. Glass,” he grunts, invoking that thing from which all cinematic universe building must come: Samuel L. Jackson.

This, the big, buzzy moment in “Split,” has very little to do with the rest of the film. It vaguely recontextualizes the preceding two hours for anyone who’s seen and remembers “Unbreakable,” but is sure to confuse the hell out of everyone else. It’s a revelation that’s a picture of a director out of ideas, picking over old scripts for unused characters that he may repurpose and haphazardly reattach them. There’s no shame in finding inspiration in old ideas; the shame comes when the old ideas are this bad.

The story of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), cut from Shyamalan’s original “Unbreakable” script, is a mess of mental illness stigmatization and nonsensical supernatural abilities. The film opens on Crumb abducting three teenage girls – Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) – so that they may wander about his poorly lit bunker in their underwear while his various identities battle each other over the emergence of an all-terrifying twenty-fourth identity: “The Beast.” As Crumb’s “good” personality, Barry, reaches out to his elderly psychologist (Betty Buckley) via email for help, the screenplay fumbles the multiplicity of its villain in the name of cheap horror tropes; we only get to know the creepy sides of Crumb.

McAvoy performs the part, or parts, with the urgency of a lion tamer who’s suddenly found himself wearing Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress. It is the most ludicrously over-the-top performance of the 37-year-old actor’s career, belying his considerable talents. It’s also the only fun element in the entire movie, keeping “Split” from being the total bore it must have been on the page.

Crumb’s plan – or lack thereof – and silly man-beast physiology evoke an “X-Files” cold open stretched to feature length, unfavorably drawing comparisons to classic monster-of-the-week episodes like “Squeeze” and “Tooms.” Unlike the genuinely terrifying Eugene Tooms played so convincingly by real-life creep Doug Hutchinson, nothing McAvoy’s Crumb says or does is all that interesting; it’s all in the delivery. But funny voices and facial elasticity can only get a two-hour motion picture so far.

Taylor-Joy’s Casey is the only of the three female leads to get any serious characterization. It’s no coincidence that she’s also the only one who isn’t made to strip down to her skivvies. Through flashbacks we find out that her uncle sexually abused her – another uninspired, exploitative horror trope – therefore giving her an edge on her abductor. Unlike the other girls, she has an idea of what to expect from Crumb and how to turn his weaknesses against him. The screenplay goes on to turn this unfortunate talent into an especially bizarre bit of mixed messaging, employing Casey’s trauma to obfuscate the reality of the meaning of Shyamalan’s movie: that it has no meaning.

To the director’s credit, this is his best-looking picture in an age. After years of putting out sloppy, embarrassing visuals, “Split” looks like a real movie. The initial abduction scene in particular is tautly directed; the flashback scenes, no matter how underhanded, are similarly gripping.

Except, the essence of “Split” is violently superficial. Even its highlights are the evaporative kind, disappearing as quickly as they arrive. McAvoy comes closest to excepting the rule, but even his performance is inherently fleeting. The shifts between characters, between acting gears exist to be briefly amused by, not felt or internalized. That the character’s existence eventually has to be justified by a stilted Bruce Willis cameo is something sadder than naked franchise building; it’s an inadvertent mea culpa. It’s Shyamalan admitting that his movie about a man with twenty-four personalities is so one-dimensional that it can’t stand on its own.

Finally, for all its backwards-bending genre clichés, “Split” is not scary. The average teen horror flick is just as nightmare inducing (not very), complete with the same use of shadow and loud noises – but with a much shorter running time. If you’re going to grossly appropriate mental illness and sexual abuse for a horror movie, at least make it scary. Exploiting them for a boring, watered down PG-13 thriller whose lead character wasn’t fit for the big screen until after your career went down the tubes – that’s just insulting.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: January 20, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures, Blumhouse Productions
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenwriters: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson, Betty Buckley
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language)