I was afraid that I would look at the box office tally this weekend and see SPLIT near the bottom. After all, it's January, so it's supposedly Hollywood 'dumping ground' time. There's that xXx thing to contend with... and yes, there's still a lot of negative feeling for M. Night Shyamalan out there. Yes, he made some films I didn't care for and he made some films I wasn't interested in seeing in the first place, but I thought THE VISIT was a well-played low budget comeback. Quite a few of you didn't agree with me on that one, either.
I shouldn't have worried. SPLIT ruled the weekend as a major hit, and it more than deserves the honor. If you were considering skipping this one... don't. I believe this ranks as Shyamalan's best work since UNBREAKABLE, and I put UNBREAKABLE right up there with THE SIXTH SENSE. This is 'comeback of the decade' stuff, and even if you don't buy that, you're going to miss one hell of a performance by James McAvoy (X-MEN, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN) if you dismiss this out of hand.
Okay, the trailer spelled the premise out fairly. At the conclusion of a party, "pity invite" and social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy of THE WITCH) is abducted along with two of her classmates by a menacing young man we'll come to know as "Dennis." Dennis, however, is only one of over twenty personalities shared by the body of the character played by McAvoy. We don't get to meet each and every one of them, but also getting prime time are the no-nonsense female Paula, nine-year-old Hedwig, and gay fashion designer Barry. At least Barry is the face that Dennis is TRYING to pass off to his psychologist (Betty Buckley as Dr. Fletcher)... he'd rather she not find out that he has three young women imprisoned in a private cell in an undisclosed location.
The story runs on two parallel tracks... the captives hope that at least one of these personalities might actually help them escape (since no two of them know what any of the others are 'up to' at any given moment), especially after an otherwise apologetic Dennis casually identifies them as "sacred food." Dennis's increasingly disturbing sexual fetishes are juxtaposed with flashbacks in which a young Casey is taught hunting skills... of course this is going to come in handy for a later confrontation, but there's far more uncomfortable truth to be revealed--none of it gratuitous. Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher has a presentation to prepare for the scientific community even as she tries to keep tabs on the increasingly agitated 'Barry,' and takes full advantage of this to let the audience in on all sorts of amazing (but true) abilities displayed by those affected by real-life Dissociative Identity Disorder, thus priming the viewer to expect some potentially 'fantastic' material before the indulgent two-hour thriller concludes.
Of course, this being a Shyamalan film, I imagine that the majority of viewers will go in trying to figure out 'the twist' ahead of time. Well, he's ready for you this time. There are all sorts of potential twists here, but the more you think on each one, the more you realize that the movie would have to blatantly cheat in order to pull them off. I'll say no more about that, but I'll remind you of (to cite a couple of examples) WHITE NOISE and the remake of MY BLOODY VALENTINE, in which the audience was specifically shown things that were only later revealed not to have happened at all; just to throw them off the track. None of that nonsense here. But unless you've got the insane urge to flee the theatre the second the end titles start, you're going to get a terrific surprise all the same.
We may be destined to argue about the plausibility of SPLIT once we've all seen it, but I doubt any of us are going to complain about McAvoy's once-in-a-lifetime tour de force or the remarkable levels of tension and genuine audience involvement throughout. SPLIT was so much better than I expected going in, and even though it's only January, it's going to be very difficult to beat this in 2017.
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