by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino. Split is the new film from my hometown boy M. Night Shyamalan, fresh off his recent success with The Visit. It’s the story of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with twenty-three personalities fighting each other for the limelight: Barry is a fashion designer. Dennis has OCD. Patricia is overbearing and matronly. Hedwig is nine years old and loves Kanye West. They exist in a jumbled cacophony that drives Kevin to kidnap high schoolers Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). While they try to bite and claw their way out of their basement prison, Crumb’s psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) makes a horrifying discovery -- a twenty-fourth personality more dangerous than anything she’s ever seen.
Adam: In this early scene, we see Kevin, as Barry the fashion designer, visiting Dr. Fletcher but she’s not so sure which of Kevin’s personalities she’s dealing with.
Rob: Split is a fun enough concept that runs out of steam about an hour in.
Adam: I don’t even know if it makes it an hour. Those scenes between McAvoy and Betty Buckley are dead weight. And there are a lot of them.
Rob: And I kept waiting for a single one of them to matter. There’s no doubt that McAvoy earns his money with a fun cocktail of performances, but Shyamalan’s attention drifts too far away from narrative and character for an effective or satisfying payoff that makes it all feel worth it.
Adam: McAvoy is a talented guy and he does what he can, but I don’t think the script does him any favors. It’s a character that’s not written very well; the various personalities feel like caricatures an improviser would create at a comedy show. There’s no depth there. At the end, he’s just saying things that sound crazy for the sake of saying things that sound crazy. It doesn’t inform anything and it just makes the whole picture drag.
Rob: Exactly. It’s a series of impressions rather than fully-drawn characters.
Adam: I liked when he would say “Etc.,” but if I’m cherry picking that moment we’re in real trouble.
Rob: One of them exists solely to accidentally show Casey where some keys are! It’s obnoxious. Maybe my biggest issue, though, is that the final act meanders too long on foregone conclusions before pivoting into a ridiculous bit of fan service that had me shouting at the screen.
Adam: We’ll get to that. And don’t shout at the screen, Rob. At best it annoys the other people in the theater and at worst you’re being hyperbolic and none of that really happened.
Rob: Last spoiler warning, everyone!
Adam: They know it’s a spoiler review, Rob.
Adam: What’s with the “where he belongs?”
Rob: I think the second phase of his career faltered largely because he was a genre director being pushed (by Hollywood or his own ego) into angling toward blockbusters. It feels like the pressure is off of him now, which makes me happy.
Adam: I’ve been an apologist for the guy more than most, based mostly on his run from 1999 to 2002, but the degree of cynicism and ugliness that comes with Split makes me wonder how much longer I want to stick with this guy. Let’s talk about the twist.
Rob: As you wish.
Adam: I like that first Wishmaster picture.
Rob: With all due respect to Unbreakable and its fans (who I know are legion), I hated the end of this film. The David Dunn cameo is a cop out, a sneaky way around an actual ending. The Beast’s decision to spare Casey because she’s as damaged as he is rings false and unearned; we spent a long time rooting for her so that she can do all of nothing to save the day. The final intersection of their two storylines is clunky and dull. It’s worth noting that I have the same issue with Unbreakable, a film that tells us all about a very cool final battle that it never shows us. I get that both films are meant to be origin stories. But, you know what? So is Iron Man. That movie has an ending.
Adam: I really like Unbreakable and didn’t have a final battle problem with that movie because I think it resolves its themes and a final fight or something wouldn’t have added anything. But saying all that, as a fan of Unbreakable I couldn’t have hated the ending of Split any more than I do. Let me explain why. There are four reasons. You ready?
Rob: I was born ready, Timmy.
Adam: My name’s not Timmy, Rob. I’m Adam. Or Riske. Or Mr. Riske. Or Mr. Adam Riske. Or Butch. Or Butchie. Or Butchie Boy. It’s not Timmy.
1. The way the ending is executed is terrible. The Unbreakable score is cued in the last scene with McAvoy. That’s fine. But then we cut to a diner where the news have to give McAvoy a villain name, “The Horde,” which is dumb. Then if people still don’t get it, we have an extra saying “Wasn’t there a supervillain that got locked up 15 years ago?” If you still don’t get it they continue “What was his name?” “Mr. Glass” answers Bruce Willis AND IF WE STILL DON’T GET IT he’s wearing a shirt with a name-tag revealing that he’s the same guy from Unbreakable. It’s so idiotic. Why not just show David Dunn then driving away from the diner and we see a sign for Amity Island. THEN OMG! IT’S IN THE JAWS UNIVERSE, TOO????!!!!
2. I didn’t like Split already before the Unbreakable shared universe reveal, so now that it’s tied to Unbreakable my enthusiasm for the earlier film is diminished because I have to associate it with something I don’t like. Unbreakable is about something. Split is about nothing other than franchise-building.
3. Shyamalan is basically telling us he wasted an entire movie in service of delivering a twist. He could have removed all of the therapy stuff and just told a David Dunn story in parallel with Bruce Willis and James McAvoy intersecting in the climax. If you introduced David Dunn and revealed this is an Unbreakable sequel it would have still been a huge twist (just one revealed in the middle) and been a complete movie. As it stands now, we have to wait another entire movie to tell the story Split should have told.
4. I don’t want to see an Unbreakable sequel, particularly one with a 2017 Bruce Willis, who only projects laziness and contempt on-screen these days. In 2000, he was still a guy I can root for, but 17 years later he’s completely become his unappealing public persona on-screen.
The ending of Split is a miscalculation of such a huge degree. It point blank tells the audience all that matters is shared universe building when the movie was sold as a standalone thriller without some sort of tie-in. It’s about as cynical as you can get. The movie is a clickbait article, not a story.
Rob: I couldn’t agree more. The entire thing boils down to a smug wink at the audience that made me want to rip my theater seat from the floor and throw it at the screen.
Adam: You’re not CrossFit enough for that.
Rob: I’ll never be CrossFit enough for you. Anyway, there’s been a bit of hubbub about the way Split portrays mental illness. Should we get into that?
Adam: Go ahead. I’m going to pee a little and really fast. Save my seat.
The Silence of the Lambs or A Beautiful Mind, it’s using the illness as a piece to fuel a larger character arc. Split mostly succeeds in that, I think, but it does the same character work in two hours that many superhero films do in ten minutes. Casey’s flashbacks have the same problem -- they take up way too much time for what they end up accomplishing narratively.
Adam: I found the movie much more offensive in its treatment of the Anya Taylor-Joy character than for those suffering from psychological illness. Shyamalan puts her through the ringer with her kidnapping, explains in disgusting backstory that she’s living with her sexual predator uncle and then leaves her at the end of the movie still in the care of the sexual predator uncle. I’ve heard a couple of theories saying she might tell the police woman about her uncle (which the movie doesn’t support, it’s too busy getting its kicks off the final twist) or that it sets up her as being a “super” like David Dunn and they’re going to join forces to which I say “good luck to you, because that’s too dumb for me to even comprehend.” Shyamalan uses the “flashback tragedy to inform a reserve of strength when dealing with a big bad” thing he did in Signs here in Split to a much less impactful effect. The way he exploits this girl and her history of sexual and physical abuse for the purpose of thriller mechanics offended me. You can’t introduce material like that with such insensitivity.
Rob: And with absolutely no payoff! Fan theories aside, the actual text of the film doesn’t at all imply that she’s going to do anything about anything. Kevin leaves her in the cage, the staffer finds her, and she gets in the cop car. Fade out. There’s ominous music and a thousand-yard stare. This isn’t some complex tone poem I’m too dense to understand. This is poor storytelling and a firm Mark Off for me. It’s actually the first film I’ve seen in a while that left me physically angry at the end.
Adam: Split is a big Mark Off for me too. It’s a garbage picture.
Next week Rob and I pay homage to the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert with a special Oscar show based on their classic “If We Picked the Winners” episodes. Join us then for our special episode - “If We Decided Who Won.”
Rob: Until next time…
Adam: These seats are reserved.