Two stars. Rated PG-13, and rather generously, for dramatic intensity, violence and gruesome behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.20.17
Color me surprised.
Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest little shocker truly is a cut (or chomp) above his other recent efforts.
But since we’re talking about the guy responsible for Lady in the Water (unrelentingly silly), After Earth (jaw-droppingly awful), The Visit (utterly repulsive) and The Last Airbender (quite possibly the worst mainstream fantasy ever made) ... that’s damning with very faint praise.
It must be difficult to hit a stadium-clearing home run the first time at bat — as with, say, Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and John Carpenter (Halloween) — and then spend the rest of a steadily declining career trying to top, or even match, that first triumph. Pursuing that rainbow destroyed Welles, and has turned Carpenter into a pathetic remnant of his former self. (Anybody remember Memoirs of an Invisible Man, Prince of Darkness or Ghosts of Mars?)
Thus, pity poor Shyamalan, forever toiling in the shadow of The Sixth Sense.
Since then, he has demonstrated an unerring knack for concocting an intriguing premise, failing to exploit it credibly, and then flushing away any marginal good will during a bonkers-ludicrous third act.
Split follows that pattern; its modestly saving graces are a better-than-usual starting point, and a bravura performance from his leading man. (Or should I say performances?)
Shyamalan wastes no time, opening with a frighteningly credible kidnap scenario that leaves high school teenagers Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the mercy of an eerily calm guy (James McAvoy) with a shaved head and military bearing. The girls wake up in a basement cell, albeit one appointed with an unexpectedly clean and polished bathroom.
Claire and Marcia, best buds, are among the most popular girls at school; Casey is the quiet outcast everybody whispers about. Thus, the savage separation of status prevents the trio from bonding into a proper team (a shrewd psychological handicap).
Their captor’s various tics include an obsessive/compulsive fixation on neatness; he’s also a sexual deviant, as evidenced by a brief but distasteful encounter with Marcia (mercifully left off-camera).