Gisell Says James McAvoy Elevates An Otherwise Mediocre SPLIT

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FILM REVIEW: SPLIT

BY GISELL BUTLER

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M. Night Shyamalan is a director known for his hits and misses. Some of his earlier films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs are arguably some of his most valuable works, however in and around the last fifteen years, M. Night seems to have lost that special touch with filmmaking that he held so earlier on in his career. This film will either be his great comeback or another catastrophe, depending on how it resonates with each person. The story itself makes some bold statements with regards to mental illness and as in classic Shyamalan form, it also layers in a deeper subtext. Honestly, after it ended, I asked myself many questions. It’s the type of film that you might need some time to digest before coming to a full conclusion on its merit. Since M. Night’s films are known for their unexpected twists and turns, I will do my best to avoid any possible spoilers.

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The story introduces us to three girls, Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) whom are all classmates. While Claire and Marcia are what you might refer to as “popular” normal high school girls, Casey is in and out of detention, and is somewhat of an outsider. Casey attends a birthday party at the mall, and when her ride doesn’t show, she catches a ride home with Claire and Marcia. While Claire’s father is loading bags into the back of his vehicle, he’s attacked and Kevin (James McAvoy) enters the car. He proceeds to spray each girl in the face with a chemical agent that knocks them out temporarily. When they awaken, they find themselves imprisoned within a room with no way out. If that’s not bad enough, they discover that their captor has multiple personalities and all of them exhibit different mannerisms and temperaments. Each of the girls must work together to try to overcome and subdue their captor in order to find means for an escape.

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One thing that really stuck out in this film was the everchanging tone during the story progression. I felt like I had whiplash due to the tone shifting constantly. The harmonization with James McAvoy’s character, and those slight deviations in atmosphere would really set the stage for each scene. During several key moments, you might find yourself laughing hysterically when you least expect it. Whereas in other scenes, you might feel uneasy, suspicious, thrilled, or sapped. There are multitudes of emotions and feelings which are driving each and every scene, whether it be an underscored opinion or a foreboding charge in the air, every scene we experience is dynamic. This is due in part to James McAvoy, who’s portrayal of a man who has DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) is electrifying. McAvoy’s reach is limitless and he really is a live wire in each camera frame that he occupies. He taps into an energy field that I have yet to see from him and he gives us a brilliant delivery in the full aspect of his body movements, facial cues, and manner of talking and dress. I highly doubt that anyone else would have been able to pull off a performance like McAvoy, yet he assumes the role and appears absolutely effortless and comfortable in his own skin, adopting each and every character to the full degree of their personality. In the past, we’ve witnessed actors doing damage to a film by an awful character representation, and McAvoy does just the opposite. He elevates what is a relatively mediocre film.

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The story itself I liked and disliked for various reasons, and it’s quite difficult to explore at length, since it would require me spoiling the film. I will say that a certain character arc revolving the plot of the story was extremely predictable and as the narrative developed and the audience is given key information to support the character’s backdrop, I had already worked it out from the beginning since it was so blatantly obvious. Another issue I found was with the characters of Claire and Marcia. Without divulging too much information, I’ll just say that I was really disappointed in their performances. Haley Lu Richardson, whom plays Claire, might as well go spin around in circles like Jennifer Love Hewitt in I Know What You Did Last Summer, with all the “What are you waiting for! Huh?! What are you waiting for!” exclaiming she does with empty delivery and there’s really no excuse for that sort of unconvincing attempt at acting. Especially considering she is sharing the same acting space with strong character actors like James McAvoy and Anya-Taylor Joy. I expected her and Sula (Marcia) to at least keep up, in terms of similar forte and believability. From the opening of the film, I didn’t like either of them, however, in closing, I was satisfied with what the writers did with their characters.

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Another big issue I had was the subject matter. M. Night seems to be exploring the concept of the mind being one of the most powerful tools in the universe, yet it still houses so many mysteries we have yet to fully unlock. This film delves into those ideas and themes of psychological and physical trauma, as well as the subject of mental illness, and while the story, in my opinion, begins to go in one direction -and you try more or less to go along with it- it seems like too many weighty topics are being thrown together and it results in a bungled mess, and you never know exactly what the director is trying to say in this film. Then, out of nowhere, the audience is blind-sided, and we are given one of the biggest surprises that no one could see coming, not even me. This surprise completely and effectively makes the film exceptionally better, even if the details of the surprise don’t necessarily belong anywhere in this film specifically. An otherwise mediocre film is then cheered on as being a “tour de force” based on this one surprise alone at the very end of the film.

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I reflected on this surprise ending and in my opinion, it made the film meaningless and doesn’t make it any better at all, unless it is meant to be there as a way of stating that a sequel of sorts might be in the near future. Not to mention the surprise might not make sense to those who aren’t M. Night fans. This bombshell really shocked me, and from the general uproar of excitement in the auditorium upon the audience witnessing this surprise, I could tell it had the same effect on them as well. If it is in fact what I think it is, and what you all might even think as well, then I’m all for willfully going in the same direction. However, if it was included as just a nod of sorts to the world M. Night created, as well as the time period, then this is what degrades the film, because the director should know better than to tease his audiences like this with no future plan to satisfy our appetites after such a great closing scene. I can only imagine that this curveball was included as a last-ditch effort to change the audience’s opinion on the film, since the third act by itself left a lot to be desired.
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The performances by Taylor-Joy and McAvoy are the only redeeming quality of this film. Without these two incredible actors attached, this film would have never landed on anyone’s radar, let alone lured in any sort of attraction based on its premise. Only an exceptional form of talent could have exceeded in these roles, and both James and Anya do so without faltering. I believe much of the attention that this film is gaining is due to the performances alone, which work to promote the movie, as well as keeping people interested in the story as it expands. The other cast members are secondary or of no importance. I strongly feel that this film had more to say about an actor’s ability (James McAvoy) than mental illness, brainpower, trauma, or anything else. Although I appreciate what M. Night is examining in retrospect, and it’s a fascinating subject to be able to ponder, I think at the end of the day, this film is here to showcase McAvoy and utilize his talents to anchor the story. Not to mention, if that didn’t work for the filmmakers, incorporating that surprise ending (which comes after the first end credits) surely adds a certain level of legitimacy to an otherwise mundane storyline. Although McAvoy gives a 5-star performance, the story itself is nothing more than average.

 

FINAL WORD:  StarStarStarEmpty StarEmpty Star