By Brianna Carman
“The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable,” and “Signs” are the early (and arguably best) works of M. Night Shyamalan’s polarizing filmography. Most believe that after the year 2000, Shyamalan has been in an artistic downward spiral. Critics and filmmakers alike have long awaited Shyamalan’s ‘comeback.’ It looks like they will have to continue to wait.
Universal Studios’ 2017 wide release of Shyamalan’s newest film “Split” may be an early entry for this year’s worst film. Although there are many things that were wrong with this film, the acting, exploitation of dissociative identity disorder, and unreasonable conflict resolution are the three most outstanding examples. James McAvoy gives a multifaceted performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder. He abducts then mentally tortures three teenage girls: Casey, Claire and Marcia, who struggle to break out of their physical and psychological captivity.
It was ambitious of Shyamalan to cast three unknown actresses. Don’t get me wrong, Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey was a very strong performance for a young, up and coming actress. But besides her and James McAvoy, the other actresses playing the abductees and the therapist, Dr. Fletcher, all delivered below subpar performances. With that being said, my first critique of the girl who played Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) is her ability to sell that she is the ‘leader’ of the group. The other girl, Marcia (Jessica Sula), follows Claire’s lead in her attempts to break out of their captivity, to slam on the door, to storm McAvoy’s character, and to climb through a vent, but the girl who plays Claire at no point convinces me to consider her as charismatic or brave. Especially at the end of the story when she whimpers for help, her cries were almost comically unbelievable.
And don’t even get me started on Marcia. There is a point in the film when Marcia has the opportunity to escape yet she is so slow and unwilling to just run that the audience finds themselves screaming at the screen “JUST RUN ALREADY!” Her hesitation is intended to be seen as a tactic of suspense yet comes off as a character being downright sluggish. While watching the scene, one can almost hear Shyamalan’s directions being whispered in the background, “Slower and more suspenseful.” To summarize how I feel about the acting, let’s just say I didn’t like it.
Then there is the exploitation of dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Fletcher’s goal throughout the movie is to prove to skeptics that a person’s body can physically change based on the identity it assumes. Although there have been true cases of particular identities having conditions that the host does not posses, Shyamalan exploits the idea of bodily change. The plot of this film is based on the idea that McAvoy is transitioning into an identity that allows his body to convert into an almost inhuman sized beast with extreme strength and can even climb on walls. Does this not seem to perfectly cater to the plot? I understand that the host’s physical body can change depending on the identity, but it is a unrealistic stretch that Kevin grows to such an extreme size. This is pure dramatization of a real condition that many people suffer from.
And lastly (spoiler alert), the conflict is resolved in a mostly unbelievable manner. At the end of the film when James McAvoy’s transition into The Beast is complete, The Beast sets out to kill. Who? Only the pure. Which is why, in the beginning, three young teenage girls have been abducted. This in itself is a faulty horror movie trope in that the only people who were abducted were three privileged, pretty girls.
McAvoy as The Beast spares Casey in the end, after learning that she is impure — she was raped at a young age. He learns this through seeing scars on her back and torso. He says sometzhing along the lines of “You aren’t pure.” In some twisted logic, this makes the audience feel as though being abused is a privilege and makes you superior to those who have not experienced abuse.
Despite all of the prior complaints, I am an optimist and try to see the best in everything and I will admit that there was one bright spot among the film’s painstaking duration. The performance given by James McAvoy is extremely versatile. Although we are told he has 24 personalities, we only see four or five of them. But the way in which McAvoy is able to convincingly show his character’s change of personalities is breathtaking. The role McAvoy takes on was a very challenging one, to say the least. Throughout the film, at no time did I think “James McAvoy is really acting here.” He delivers a very strong performance in that he loses himself in his character. I was always convinced that he was whatever personality he was embodying, even if that couldn’t be said for the rest of the cast.