Continuing his return to horror, director M. Night Shyamalan tells the story of three girls kidnapped by a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder; Lee reviews (spoiler-free).
If experimentation pleased everyone, then it wouldn’t be an experiment, it’d be a long-awaited solution. Director M. Night Shyamalan is relatively well-known for his propensity for messing with established formulas, mashing genres together in the pursuit of ever-changing, ever-interesting entertainment and to his belt he can add another success with Split.
Part horror film with horror conventions, supernatural melodrama with the bloat and pomp that comes from related genres, part allegorical survivor’s story with a forensic metaphorical insight into one of the world’s most persistent and relevant wrongs and part deadpan comedy; to say the target demographic for Split is narrow is to make a grand overstatement. There is no desired viewer bar Shyamalan himself and those who love to see films get weird; everyone else waits on the outer fringes of the Venn diagram.
But for grey areas in taste and intention to thrive there needs to be an underlay of technical efficiency, both on a writing and visual level and, mercifully, the machine beneath the art functions marvellously. Breezy dialogue that falls just on the light end of campy, trope characters who don’t overstep their bounds into distracting, settings that complement the requirements of each scene and exposition neatly tidied into a single character are all met with exceptional editing, solid directorial flair and tension right from the Hitchcockian textbook itself. It makes for solid groundwork that should keep even the uninterested engaged by sensory phenomena alone, but more importantly rigidity supports the manoeuvring of the specifics above.
Each scene reads like a self-defined concept challenge, with multiple games invented to try and up the fun: can I have my multi-personality character at a shrink? Can the shrink challenge the idea of which personality she’s speaking to? Can these personalities be manipulated against one another? Can we inform the audience of our main survivor’s past while also juggling the possibility that, at some point, she might be raped and/or killed? Can we do that while one of the personalities, that of a young boy, makes an off-hand joke about a kiss making her pregnant? That’s all surface level, but the sheer audacity on show as the film flexes its scope is fascinating, and the openness of the screenwriting leaves it ripe for interpretation, particularly in regards to Casey and the trauma of her past.
Difficulties arise in the handling of its deeper subject matter, especially when dealing with abuse in its many forms, as well as the real-life mental condition that is essentially being warped for entertainment purposes here. While it does tackle some of the underlying issues of the characters, and generally without belabouring its points with on-the-nose explanation, it also feels content to leave a black-and-white story stay fairly black-and-white at times to fit with the expectations of the horror form, and while this is the not the story from which to draw real ire, it certainly will lead to disappointment on the deeper levels as it teases real-world functionality in a fictional, upside-down grim funscape.
But it hardly derides the point that this is experimentation with established forms at its finest. An ending that is exclusionary and self-indulgent will sticks true to Shyamalan’s classic form, and the sheer passion and fun behind this dark, tense story will make for a splendid rewatch for those taken by its craft. Experiments have rarely felt so rewarding.