Split and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures
Directed by M Night Shyamalan
We all want Shyamalan to have a comeback and to find a way to make up for the last fifteen years of his career; especially when it includes such unmitigated disasters like After Earth, The Last Airbender, or even The Happening which is fun to watch but for none of the reasons he intended it to be. Now he did manage to knock out at least one decent film recently which was The Visit, but it was also a clear sign of how far his status has fallen that he was picking up Blumhouse scraps on a dopey premise with a found footage gimmick. Now it WAS probably the best thing he made since Signs, but even with that it still wasn’t all that great and wasn’t something that I could imagine a dozen other much less accomplished directors directing along with three other direct to video horror films that year. With this movie though, it seems he’s making a much more earnest effort; not just a paycheck to keep his name relevant, but an honest attempt to make the next great M Night movie that we’ve been waiting for since Bush won reelection. Does the latest M Night thriller finally bring him back into the spotlight, or is this the final curtain call for the much maligned filmmaker? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with the teenagers, Claire, Marcia, and Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, and Anya Taylor-Joy), being kidnapped by a mysterious dude for clearly nefarious purposes. Once they wake up from this… spray the guy uses (do they actually make Knock Out spray?), they find themselves in some sort of basement with two beds, a small bathroom, and a locked door. Not long after they wake up, they are confronted by their captor Dennis (James McAvoy) who doesn’t give much details but makes it clear that he isn’t about to let them go. Sometime later, they meet Patricia (James McAvoy) who apologizes for Dennis’s rude behavior, and eventually they meet young Hedwig (James McAvoy) who tells them they’re all screwed. Now if you couldn’t pick up on it yet, or you haven’t seen the trailers, these are all the same person as their captor, given name Kevin, has Dissociative Identity Disorder and is said to have 23 distinct personalities, though maybe five or six are relevant to the movie. From there, the movie just builds the tension as more time passes and the women are dreading what their captor has planned for them which, according to Hedwig, are PROBABLY not good things. While that’s going on, Kevin’s therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is getting messages from one of his identities, Barry, claiming that they DESPERATLEY need to see her, but whenever he comes in, he seems perfectly fine and is sorry to be wasting her time. Hm… So just what does Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig have planned for the women in his basement? Will the good doctor find out that everything is certainly NOT fine before it’s too late? What exactly are those other identities we don’t to see really like?
I didn’t just like this movie. I LOVED it for about three fourths of the run time. It’s not just everything we want from a good M Night movie, but from a thriller in general; making it INCREDIBLY FRUSTRATING that he hasn’t made something this good in years when it seems to come so naturally to him. Now the movie completely goes off the rails at the end which is more in line with his bad films than his good ones, and in doing so manages to tip his hand too far in regards to the controversial premise, but considering that his BAD movies usually suck all the way through, I’ll take it. Yeah, the ending is bad enough that it would pretty much sink any other film, similar to what happened with the lame ending to Allied, but that fact alone just goes to show how amazing this movie is up until it starts to fall apart that it can still stand up despite its ending instead of fall because of it.
What’s good about this movie is honestly pretty simple so there’s not too much to analyze. It’s a thriller with a fine tuned tension/release cycle, the acting and writing are strong enough to make all the characters endearing, and the central conceit manages to be eminently fascinating and made me want to see this movie go on for like two more hours just to watch more scenes of Kevin wrestling with himself. The stakes are always clear as we may not know EXACTLY what Kevin plans, but the way it is described leaves no room for doubt as to how badly these three women need to escape. It manages to have that one overarching source of ever increasing pressure while also providing short tension/release moments throughout to keep us engaged while it takes its time working towards its crescendo which is the best way to handle these kinds of thrillers. The movie I can probably best compare it to would be 10 Cloverfield Lane; a film I was probably a bit too hard on as I had a hard time buying into the central premise (there’s NO GOD DAMN WAY the air outside is ACTUALLY toxic, and STOP trying to convince me otherwise!) in as much as that movie had a similar set up and knew how to build tension effectively. I did end up liking this one more though because the threats in here felt way more real and I never really felt like there was an easy way out of the situation; something we can credit to our main character Casey who does a great job of portraying that she knows how bad this is but also knows enough to not try something that would obviously not work. That’s left for the OTHER two prisoners who basically do what we THINK we would do in this situation, and the film does a great job of shoring up those possible plot holes in an effective and believable manner.
The acting as well is pretty solid across the board with Betty Buckley as the credible (if a bit exuberant) therapist working with Kevin and Anya Taylor-Joy as the aforementioned Casey. McAvoy however is the obvious highlight with the big showy role that allows him to have a wide range of mannerisms, ticks, and costumes that he uses very effectively to convey the various Identities that Kevin has. In fact, let’s get into that for a bit. The big question hanging over this film (aside from is it any good) is how offensive the movie is to those who have Dissociative Identify Disorder (DID) and by extension furthering the stigma of mental illness when it comes to film. Now before I give my opinion, I’m gonna put my cards on the table so you know where I’m coming from when I give my own personal verdict on it. I do not know anyone with this disorder, and (as far as I know) I don’t have any mental disorder either. My understanding of this specific condition mostly comes from the show United States of Tara which is actually one of my favorite shows of all time and I found the portrayal in that show fascinating. As far as THAT show’s accuracy, it seems the consensus tends to be that it’s a very EXTREME and SHOWY version of DID, but is not inconsistent, ignorant, or intentionally misleading. Taking that into account and trying to bridge my understanding from that show to this movie, I found Kevin’s portrayal to be similarly extreme (even more so actually), and that the framing of DID in the movie needed some… toning down. There were parts with Kevin’s psychiatrist that sounded more like a showman at a carnival describing the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World rather than someone with a measured understanding of the disorder, and there wasn’t enough to distinguish Kevin’s situation as a SPECTACULAR outlier rather than in any way typical of others who have DID. For the first three fourths though (and considering I was aware to some extent how much this isn’t typical of DID), I thought the portrayal was very interesting and took the right kind of steps to say he’s doing bad things AND he has DID rather than he’s doing bad things BECAUSE he has DID. That’s an important distinction that needs to be made and I only think the movie stumbles into that A LITTLE BIT by accident in service of making this a thriller and doesn’t ACTUALLY believe that DID makes you a psycho-killer. I won’t go into it too much, but to me it was clear that what he’s doing in this movie is not due to his disorder and is him dealing with (and losing to) his own personal demons. We know that people who are quote-unquote NORMAL are capable of monstrous acts all on their own and we can even go back to 10 Cloverfield Lane to see an example of this, so the fact that he does have this disorder didn’t really need to be connected to his evil deeds. Now maybe I was ready to come into the movie NOT making those kinds of connections that I was basically just blocking out some of the tone-deaf moments in the first three fourths here. It’s very possible that this is the case, and I’ve missed stuff like this before without realizing it. For me though, the majority of this movie managed to not tip over into outright offensiveness, even if it was sensationalistic.
Now all that said, you may have noticed that I was SPECIFICALLY talking about the first three fourths there. Well… I guess now we have to talk about what this movie got wrong, and it’s portrayal of DID is one of the main reasons why it doesn’t work. The problem with discussing WHY it doesn’t work though is that we now get into MAJOR spoiler territory, so I’ll do the best I can not to reveal too much, but you might not jump ahead to the end if you don’t want to even have an inkling of an idea of how this ends. So the overarching tension of the movie is what is going to happen to these three women. It’s clear early on in the movie that there seems to be a… shall we say EVIL identity (The Beast which they reference multiple times in the trailers) that is running the show and will reveal themselves at the right time which can only be bad for those who were captured. How that is ultimately handled is… well not only STUPID, but feeds directly into the stigmas of DID. For a movie that was riding the line so closely throughout, this was a dive bomb right onto the side of offensive and feels kinda lazy considering that M Night is supposed to be good at this kind of thing… or at least he was for two movies. Interestingly, this movie seems to be at its worse when it’s DIRECTLY trying to copy the M Night formula; namely in that it HAS to have some sort of big revelation and twist at the end, and the movie doesn’t really need it. If they pulled back and didn’t rely on a big GOTCHA or take a turn you weren’t expecting, then this would have been a lot better. Still, as stupid and bone headed as the choices were at the end of the movie, it did manage to maintain a strong sense of tension and come to a conclusion that, while silly, I was okay with.
It’s not gonna be for everyone, especially those who are already sick of mental disorders being used as shorthand for villainy, but there’s so much artistry and technical mastery in the majority of this movie that I still recommend it to everyone who isn’t going to be bothered by that aspect of the film. Now if this guy can keep up this level of quality while ALSO dropping the exploitative subject matter (The Visit was similarly problematic with its portrayal of dementia), then we might have a real comeback on our hands. Even if he doesn’t surpass himself after this… let’s just hope he doesn’t slide back into old habits. I know that Last Airbender movie ended on a cliffhanger, but we really don’t need another one of those.
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