Split

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Some critics commented on how Split starts well, gripping the viewer with a thrilling story of three girls kidnapped by a man with an extreme multi-personality disorder, before losing it as it heads off in a more outlandish, almost supernatural, direction at the end. This isn’t how I saw it at all. It’s true that I didn’t have a problem with where the plot went in the last twenty minutes, outlandish generally doesn’t present me with any difficulties, but I thought it was actually pretty silly from the beginning. This certainly wasn’t a film like 10 Cloverfield Lane that showed a woman held in captivity for the first hour or so only to have her escape from the claustrophobic, intense, intimate setting to find that the aliens have landed and she has to fight off huge spaceships. Neither was this film similar to Safety Not Guaranteed that followed a reporter investigating a crazy guy who claims to have invented time travel only to discover that he really has invented time travel. It isn’t even comparable to K-Pax that has a guy in a psychiatric hospital who may or may not be from another planet. Nope, Split is a bonkers, spooky film from the start. 

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On its initial release two months ago there was some discussion in the film press surrounding the authenticity of the main character’s condition. Various doctors were invited to comment on the likelihood of someone really having such distinct split personalities. Having finally caught up with the movie I’m a little surprised by this; you might as well ask a paediatrician if a child will genuinely cease to age once bitten by a vampire. Split is not depicting a real disability; we are firmly in Jekyll and Hyde territory here or rather we are in Jekyll and Dennis and Hedwig and Barry and Patricia and Hyde territory (The character apparently has over twenty personalities but we only properly get to see six of them.)

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Director M. Night Shyamalan has made a few forays into cheesy sci-fi/fantasy recently but Split is a lot more like his early films The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water and Unbreakable (particularly that last one). It doesn’t have the type of twist that he was once known for but it aims to depict a fantasy scenario in a real world setting in a similar way. Unfortunately unlike those films Split doesn’t really have anyone to root for and I think this more than anything is why I couldn’t really get on with it.

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James McAvoy gives an undeniably masterful performance as the troubled predator but none of the various personalities he plays are engagingly charismatic in the way all the best screen villains are. Most endearing is probably Hedwig who is apparently a kid but because he is in the body of a man he is mostly just really really creepy. Also, and I except this is tricky, but Shyamalan and McAvoy haven’t quite managed to catch the sense of a nine year old boy quite well enough; he’s playing it a bit young. Nine year old boys typically communicate in the same way as adults do just a lot more trusting and a little less savvy. Still I guess in the context of the narrative the character is a construct so the lack of realism is excusable.

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The hero of the piece is Casey, the most level headed of the three girls taken, and actually she should be the audiences way in. She is played by Anya Taylor-Joy who was brilliant in The Witch and Morgan but here she is hard to cannot with. Certainly you can’t identify with her as you could Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s parallel character in the aforementioned 10 Cloverfield Lane. Taylor-Joy just plays it too detached. There are character reasons for this but even Emma Watson was a more convincing kidnap victim in Beauty & the Beast.

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Much of Split is impressive, it is executed with conviction and no compromise, and the story is compelling. Unusually though for this director the movie has very few surprises. 

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The Ripley Factor:
Casey is a good enough character. She is brave, smart and resourceful but she never quite moves away from being a victim. There is another key female part, that of the psychologist, but in the end she doesn’t do enough to challenge gender stereotypes either. More problematic than both of these though are the other two girls taken alongside Casey. They are underwritten and are too quickly sidelined and they are both stripped down to their underwear for the most tenuous narrative reason. Unfortunately this seemingly small detail actually robs the film of any feminist ideals it may have hoped to have. 

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Is this one for the kids?
Split is a 15 and as well as the gratuitous shots of young women in bras and pants it has some violence and swearing. Also, in terms of influencing young minds, it also has a less than helpful depiction of mental illness. 

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