Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
Rated PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and Some Language
In 1999, M. Night Shyamalan released "The Sixth Sense," a thriller that no one saw coming (pun intended). It was a massive hit, earning six Oscar nominations and earned nearly $700 million at the box office. Personally, I didn't think it was all that great; apart from a few decent shocks and one hell of a twist ending, there wasn't much to distinguish it from other supernatural thrillers. He followed it up the next year with "Unbreakable," which I didn't see, and then "Signs," another massive hit. Soon he became a known name (rare for a director) and was called the "new Alfred Hitchcock." Then came "The Village." While not universally derided, it signaled a slump, but when "Lady in the Water" bombed two years later, Shyamalan's career was in free fall. With movies like "The Happening" and "The Last Airbender" taking a brutal beating from audiences and critics, his name is now uttered in the same sentence as Michael Bay and Uwe Boll. I've missed everything he's done since "Signs," but I feel quite confident that "Split" will not rescue his career. If it's possible to judge the rest of his movies from this monstrosity, it should kill it.
The plot has two modes: dumb and incoherent. They are not mutually exclusive. Giving a set-up the plot is a futile endeavor, but let me try. Three girls named Casey (Taylor-Joy), Claire (Richardson) and Marcia (Sula) have been kidnapped by Dennis (McAvoy). Dennis is one of the personalities stuck inside of a single man. His therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley) believes that the separate personalities are the next evolutionary stage or distinct separate people. The movie is so unclear about this that it could be something else entirely. Anyway, these two storylines, which detail the girls escape attempts and Fletcher's psychobabble are interspersed with a hunting trip involving a little girl, her father and her uncle. Despite having almost nothing to do with the film, it's more interesting than anything else on screen. Sadly, Shyamalan gives it minimal screen time.
Often times when a movie fails, it's easy to see what a filmmaker was going for. Not here. This is such a misguided, nonsensical mess that I'm at a complete loss as to what Shyamalan was thinking, much less trying to do. Is it a psychodrama or a thriller? He doesn't know, and believe me, that's the least of the film's problems.
The one consolation is that James McAvoy is playing the lead role, and while he can't save the film (no one could), the fact that he's not walking through it makes it a little less painful. And he earns my congratulations, not only for being able to play it straight but not choke on the dialogue he is given. His co-stars are awful. Still, I have to wonder why he signed his name on the dotted line. With a tiny budget of $10 million, it surely wasn't money. Perhaps he was looking for something, anything as a break from playing Charles Xavier for the umpteenth time. My guess is that someone has some pretty damning pictures that he'd like to keep secret. Last year's "it" girl Anya Taylor-Joy has the most screen time, but she's just as bad as the other two. Betty Buckley is boring as Dr. Fletcher, who has to be the single dumbest doctor in film history. It's long past time that the good doctor retire and enter the senior living center. Not only for the benefit of her patients, but ours.
As nonsensical as it is, it's easy to see where Shyamalan stole his ideas. "Borrowing," which someone like Tarantino does, implies talent and respect. Shyamalan has neither. The list is as eclectic as it is long: "The Silence of the Lambs," "Martyrs," "The Lawnmower Man," "Cat People," and at least one other that I'm not going to mention out of respect for it because it's a movie you would do well to see rather than this one. Hint: I have reviewed it.
It's not often that you see movies this bad (although last year had a few of them). But when it happens, it feels like being dragged through raw sewage. Or being locked in a dank, smelly basement.