Tuesday 24 January 2017
Split In Image
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
UK cinema release print.
Warning: Yeah... this pretty much has all the spoilers
Okay, so... if you’re a regular reader here then you probably already know my track record with M. Night Shyamalan is not all that great. He really gets me angry because, in almost every film, his ‘famous twist’ at the end is really obvious and telegraphed right from the start. The Sixth Sense, for example, takes only ten minutes to crack on first viewing. The Village was the worst one for that stuff though... it’s literally the second shot of the movie (which is a reverse shot to the previous if I’m recalling correctly) which is about 30 seconds or so into the film, when the trick ending is made pretty clear in the way the director uses his camera. So I’m not the biggest fan of his storytelling because it’s always so easy to pick up on and his last movie, The Visit (reviewed here) did nothing to change that opinion of his work. About the only time he did surprise me was in Unbreakable, where the nature of Samuel L. Jackson’s character was revealed at the end... so I probably have more respect for that movie than any of his others. I also liked Devil (reviewed here... although that wasn’t actually directed by him, just written from his story idea).
So Split was a movie I kind of put myself through because I quite like James McAvoy but I was pretty sure, on seeing the trailer last year, that it could only have one of two possible endings and so, even before I set foot in the cinema, I was berating Shyamalan for being too obvious. However, the truth be told, he seemed to be banking on me thinking that on this one and... well, I’ll get to that later.
As the trailer suggests, Split is about a man, played by James McAvoy, who is seriously schizophrenic in that he’s holding a multitude of split personalities in his head (23 or possibly 24, to be almost precise). He kidnaps three women, locks them up and is going to do something ‘bad’ to them. And so that’s the general idea and, after the trailer, I realised it could go either way on an ending.
I was pretty certain that one of these two options would be the film’s supposed twist here...
1. Every character in the movie, not just the obvious ones played by James McAvoy, would be another manifestation of his split personality... including the so called victims he had purportedly kidnapped. That seemed like a bit of an easy one even for Shyamalan, though, so my alternative was...
2. Near the end it would be revealed that McAvoy was, in fact, identical twin brothers taking on a large number of personalities each. While the victims had been talking to one or the other manifestations without realising they were talking to differently motivated sets of personalities throughout the course of the movie. This might have made things a little more interesting... was how I was thinking.
As the movie began, from the first shot in fact, I realised Shyamalan had probably gone with the easier option of nobody being real outside of McAvoy’s head. Certainly the way the film was shot and the isolation and lack of interaction in some scenes, plus the constant flashbacks to the abused childhood of the primary kidnap victim played by Anya Taylor-Joy (who was so good in The VVitch which I reviewed here and as Morgan, which I reviewed here) seemed to point right to this kind of denouement.
As it happens, though, M. Night Shyamalan did manage to surprise me but, alas, it was in the least interesting way possible. I had hoped the director may have come up with a third, much more clever option for an end twist but it was not to be. Instead, it was more of a surprise by ommission. Do you remember his movie Signs? I spent the whole of that movie trying to figure out what the explanation was behind the aliens in the movie. What the twist was that turned everything on its head and surprised the audience in an interesting way. However, Signs didn’t have a twist ending, as it turned out. Instead, it basically said that everything in that movie was to be taken as face value and we should just live with the idea that it’s a sci-fi movie. Which didn’t sit well with me, to be honest. Well, in Split, the director heads back to this territory in that there is no twist ending on this movie... everything is there to be taken at face value. Where Shyamalan does get a little clever, then, is by finally adapting his cinematic syntax to mislead the audience to a different conclusion from the correct one, rather than just passively let them ride along second guessing it. The red herrings of the mise-en-scene make the lack of surprise a thing in itself... so, okay, I can at least respect him for this.
I guess my one real grumble out of all this, though, is that just like Signs before it, this makes the film seem somewhat anticlimactic. I wasn’t very happy at the lack of twistedness to the plot here, it has to be said. However, Shyamalan does redeem himself somewhat with a little punchline moment at the end of the movie which, at least, changes your mind about the kind of movie you have been watching up until that point.
So... okay, good things? Well McAvoy is as good as you'd expect as various manifestations of the antagonist's multiple characterisations and Taylor-Joy is also pretty great here, it has to be said. There are some nice shot set ups which, when not trying to make you second guess a different ending, caters to the title with some nicely framed vertical elements which split the shots from time to time. So that’s all good.
The music by West Dylan Thordson is okay too, although I would have preferred to have seen Shyamalan carrying on his immensely creative relationship with composer James Newton Howard, who I think did his best work for the Shyamalan films. Especially since I think that in the last few seconds of the movie they've maybe re-used or tracked in an old theme from an earlier film. I’d certainly buy this score if it was made available in CD format but, alas, it seems once more that I’m not likely to hear it as a stand alone because the only way it seems to be getting a release right now is via electronic download (don’t do it kids... it sucks... make them give the music a proper release.
One of the more stand out moments of the whole experience is that it does have a nice little epilogue scene after the first couple of credits which do put a new slant on the way the movie has been playing out. You do, after all, see one of McAvoy’s personalities eating various people and walking around on walls and ceilings like Spider-Man and once it’s been established that this manifestation is not, surprisingly, in anybody’s head, it then delivers up one little nugget of an end coda which kind of puts the movie into perspective. That being that this whole movie was, in some ways, an elaborate set up for a new supervillain. Yeah, that’s right, it’s an ‘origin story’ for a character called ‘The Horde’. And this is what we take away from the last five or so seconds of the little punchline scene at the end. Set in a diner, some folks are talking about the escaped maniac and one of the diners says it reminds her of that guy that got caught years ago, but couldn’t remember his name. As the diners leave they reveal Bruce Willis in a cameo, reprising his role from Unbreakable and simply saying... “Mr. Glass”. So there you have it... if, and I doubt this but you never know, Shyamalan and Willis ever get around to making their ‘proper’ sequel to Unbreakable, we have a new supervillain for the movie. In the meantime though, this scene firmly identifies Split as an Unbreakable sequel so, for now at least, that’s what we are left with.
Other than that one truly bright moment, however, the film has a lot to admire in it but don’t expect too much from it and don’t expect a twist ending for sure. This is a fairly entertaining ride for a lot of the time (with the usual fun at seeing Shyamalan himself do one of his cameo appearances) but it’s not a great film like... um... well, like Unbreakable was. That being said, it’s not as chronically disappointing as most of his other films either (the jury is still out for The Lady In The Water because I haven’t seen it yet... it’s in the ‘to watch’ pile as I type) and it’s worth a watch for seeing the way McAvoy manages to manifest his various personalities. Not one I would be too bothered with seeing at the cinema but if you’re already a fan of this director then it may be something you enjoy. Not his best but, certainly, not his worst.