★★ / ★★★★
One criticism against “Split,” written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, that holds no weight is its lack of realism or truth in depicting dissociative identity disorder. The film is not a documentary but a horror-thriller after all. And the point of the horror genre is to take our fears to the extreme, to stretch it even to the point of disbelief, and explore it. But herein lies my criticism of the movie. Although it is well-made and well-acted, the plot certainly taking a real-life psychological disorder into the realm of fiction, the material does not explore deeply enough to function as a high level psychological horror-thriller.
A major limitation is in its utilization of flashbacks. Although these are meant to educate us about Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the three high school students (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) abducted by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) after a birthday party, in terms of her personal history outside of the hostage situation, the jumps in time consistently sever the tension that builds.
Poorly used flashbacks is not an uncommon problem in horror and thriller pictures. But in order for this tool to work effectively, events during the present and the past must be equally fascinating. Here, the present is far more captivating and the past, while informative, is a bit tired and predictable. One extended flashback early on in the picture—or smack dab in the middle right before a pivotal moment so that we are suspended us in suspense—might have been a fresher, more potent alternative. I expected a more inspired choice from a master of tone and pacing like Shyamalan.
Another important shortcoming is in the presentation of personalities—not what we see on screen because McAvoy does a solid delivery with each identity but with respect to the writing. While understandable that we do not get to meet all twenty-three personalities due to time constraints, getting to know two or three on a deeper level might have made the experience eye-opening, highlighting the humanity underneath the disorder, fictional or otherwise. Having done so could have turned a clever ending into a powerful shot to the gut, further supporting the idea that this move is, beyond the superficial horror-thriller elements, a character-driven piece.
The writer-director is at his best when he plays with the camera, employing awkward angles and extreme closeups in order to highlight a sense of dread and impending doom. Shyamalan’s Hitchcock-ian spirit is one I’ve admired and will continue to admire for a long time because even though a scene or a shot doesn’t quite work, one cannot help but feel regaled, or alerted, by his sense of style and confidence when that camera moves with magnetic purpose.
“Split” offers passable entertainment but not a riveting experience. Although there are creative choices, such as a more complex than expected characterization of its final girl and McAvoy’s ability to balance terrifying, bizarre, and humorous personalities, the flow is broken far too often. When it comes to movies of this kind, gulping it down should be like smooth liquor.