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Though Kevin (James McAvoy) has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), there remains one still submerged, who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him and everyone around him as the walls between his compartments shatter apart. (From Universal’s official synopsis)

 Split
The Visit (2015) helped to re-establish many of the things we used to like about M. Night Shyamalan movies – the PG-13 scares built upon common childhood fears, the dry sense of humour, and, of course, the Twilight Zone twist – but, as an entry in Blumhouse Productions’ uber-cheap found-footage lottery, it was lacking most of the director’s studied and slick visual palette. While it was certainly nice to have him back to form in some capacity, Shyamalan needed more than a cute little indie-priced thriller to convince audiences to forget the folly of his forays into blockbuster fantasy/sci-fi filmmaking. His second film for Blumhouse, the still very modestly-priced Split, offers him a chance to reclaim some of his former glory without the safety net of a found-footage concept.

Split isn’t quite as handsome as The Sixth Sense or even Lady in the Water (which most of us have to admit at least looked attractive), but Shyamalan is back in control of his camera and modifying some of his oldest tricks to fit the more confined, less lavish sets and locations. In particular, the use of point-of-view and pointedly lopped-off angles that subtly obscures faces and actions. Of course, Shyamalan’s career downturn was a “script problems, then image problems” affair. Split isn’t an entirely original story and its conclusion isn’t entirely satisfying – I admit that I was waiting for more of a twist than a conclusion – but the script is neatly compiled into a clever puzzle that keeps the mystery alive by obscuring the audience’s attempts to get ahead of the story with wry comedy and tightly knit near-escape sequences. Even if it carries on a bit too long, most of it makes sense, even when good character-building requires the director to fiddle with chronology. The one concrete place where Shyamalan drops the ball is Casey’s unnecessary backstory. These flashbacks buck the narrative momentum (no other character has flashbacks), over-explain the film’s emotional climax, and, worse, Casey is yet another movie heroine whose strength (what little she musters) is strictly defined by her victimhood. I understand that the idea is to connect her and Kevin via similarly abusive pasts, but there had to be a better way to do this; one that isn’t the most tired cliche in the ‘strong female’ playbook.

 Split
Split is, by design, as much of a showcase for its star as it is for Shyamalan and I can think of few popular actors as up to the task of full-immersion camp than James McAvoy. The multi-personalities angle is almost always patently silly and, in other cases, the harder filmmakers and actors try to take such things seriously, the more laughable – and offensive – such things usually become. McAvoy avoids torpedoing any sense of drama by instantly acknowledging the ludicrous, gimmicky nature of changing accents and mannerisms. The female component of the cast has to try a little harder than McAvoy to get attention, but still benefit from Shyamalan’s penchant for making exposition seem relatively natural, at least within the confines of the movie’s stylized micro-universe. The girls make some very smart choices for kidnapping victims in a horror movie and the scenes in which people discuss psychological concepts are surprisingly respectful, at least in their tone (I don’t really know anything about actual dissociative identity disorder), all of which helps to normalize the atmosphere surrounding McAvoy’s performance and allow him to be ostentatious enough without losing a sense of real drama, because, ultimately, we do need to see him as a tragic character(s).

Video


Split was shot using Arri Alexa digital cameras and is presented here in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis take full advantage of the format’s fine detail and clean gradations to create a soft appearance. The use of delicate shallow focus makes for a lot of blooming edges and blurry backdrops, but their photographic design also includes plenty of complex textures and neatly separated patterns. The wide shots of rich autumnal landscapes and the psychiatrist’s incredibly busy home office are especially impressive. These scenes are also a good way to gauge contrast in colour quality from location to location. The outdoor exteriors are bright and colourful, the daylight interiors are warm and eclectic, and Kevin’s lair alternates between warm and cool desaturation. Occasionally, the gradations do appear slightly over-smoothed, implying that there may have been a bit of compression, but the movie is short and there aren’t too many extras on the Blu-ray, so I doubt disc space was at a premium. Odds are that each of these are just inherent in the footage. Digital grain is minimal, even during darker sequences, while other compression artefacts are practically non-existent.

 Split

Audio


Split is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. Despite the film’s more campy tone, the sound design calls back to Shyamalan’s earlier thrillers in its use of stoic silence to set the mood. There’s a lot of whispering and murmuring, making it necessary to crank the volume knob to uncomfortable levels just to understand basic dialogue. Then, just when we’re getting cozy with the sound design, Shyamalan tosses a loud bit into the mix, either to make a point (as in the moment where the girls knock on the walls of their prison until they find a ‘hole’) or drive a jump scare. West Dylan Thordson’s score sets an eerie mood, but tends to be dialed back in favour of sound effects – to the point that some cues seem artificially truncated towards the end of some sequences. The droning piano, string, and industrial sounds are eventually given a more expressive place in the mix as the film drives forward to its conclusion.

Extras


  • Alternate ending with optional Shyamalan commentary (00:32, HD) – This actually seems like more of an extended ending.
  • Nine deleted/extended scenes with optional Shyamalan commentary (14:37, HD) – These mostly fill in backstory, including a number of sequences where Sterling K. Brown plays one of Betty Buckley’s psychiatric colleagues.
  • The Making of Split (9:50, HD) – A rather fluffy look at the film with cast & crew interviews. It is full of spoilers, though, so I can’t imagine it was used as an EPK.
  • The Many Faces of James McAvoy (5:38, HD) – The actor discusses his approach to playing an entire cast of different identities.
  • The Filmmaker’s Eye: M. Night Shyamalan (3:40, HD) – The cast & crew talk about the Shyamalan’s writing and directing processes.


 Split

Overall


Split is darn close to a complete return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. There are some tonal and pacing issues, but the bulk of the screenplay is good fun, the performances are top notch – star James McAvoy is campy without being obnoxious – and the whole movie simply looks good. Universal’s Blu-ray sports a nice transfer and strong, though subtle DTS-HD MA sound mix. The extras are too brief to really fill us in on the behind-the-scenes process, but the deleted scenes are certainly interesting.

 Split

 Split

 Split
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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