After a brutal stretch of films that failed to connect with critics or audiences, M. Night Shyamalan has finally turned things around. The notorious director started his career with a bang, creating an instant classic in the form of The Sixth Sense, delivering a cult hit with Unbreakable, and bringing us Signs, another box office sensation. But at some point, things started to change. Shyamalan's movies became bogged down in their big twists, and films like The Village, Lady in the Water, and The Happening are infamous in the eyes of many cinephiles. It didn't take long for Shyamalan to tackle a couple of franchise films, moving out of his thriller wheelhouse to bring us atrocities like The Last Airbender (which I maintain is one of the worst films I've ever seen) and 2013's After Earth. Around that time, something must have clicked for Shyamalan. He realized that his home was with the horror genre, and he went back to his roots with The Visit, a creepy, underrated gem. It wasn't perfect, but it established that the master of the twist was back on track.
While Shyamalan prepared his career resurgence, a different type of revival began to pop up in Hollywood. Last year saw the comeback of the Hitchcockian suspense film, thanks to the white-knuckle thrills of Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane and Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe. So with this push for low-key, highly entertaining old-school thrillers, it makes sense for Shyamalan's big comeback to be a suspenseful, wickedly high concept outing, much in the same style as those aforementioned films. Split may seem like one of the most terrifying movies of the year from its spooky trailer, but in reality, it's a fascinating examination of the reaction to abuse and a showcase for the incredible talents of James McAvoy. It's exciting, tense, and certainly all kinds of messed up, but it never reaches a point where it's shocking or genuinely scary. And if that stands as the film's biggest downside, it's also its greatest asset. Split is a surprisingly gripping and compelling piece of work from Shyamalan, an unnerving character study that goes in some thought-provoking and unexpected directions. It's the film that his fans have been waiting for in more ways than one, and it stands as a well executed, delectably bizarre way to kick off the new year.
Split opens on a rather calm, quiet note- it's a birthday gathering for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and her classmates have all joined her to celebrate. As the party wraps up, Claire and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are waiting around for Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) to find a way to get home. Claire's father offers her a ride, and they head off to the car. Casey is clearly different, and the girls mention how she gets detention quite frequently. As the girls are sitting in the car, an unknown man opens the door and sits down in the driver's seat. He covers his face with a gas mask and sprays the girls with a toxin that knocks them out instantly. When they wake up, the trio are trapped in an underground prison of sorts, locked in a single room. Their abductor enters, and handles the situation with a strange kind of calculated precision. Claire and Marcia are terrified, but Casey de-escalates things, hoping to find some kind of leverage to use against this man.
Sooner or later, the girls discover that their kidnapper is named Kevin (James McAvoy). But he's also named Dennis. And Patricia. Oh, and then there's Hedwig too. And Barry. Kevin has dissociative identity disorder, commonly known as split personality syndrome. There are 23 different identities inside Kevin's mind, and they are engaged in a constant power struggle for control over his body. Most of the identities are harmless, but a few dangerous individuals have taken the spotlight. Through his interactions with the girls and Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), we're given a terrifying glimpse into Kevin's deteriorating mental state, as Dennis and Patricia begin to prepare for the arrival of a 24th personality, known only as "The Beast." As Kevin's true power is slowly revealed, Casey and Dr. Fletcher realize the horrific truth behind his unique condition.
Split is getting great reviews from critics, while also winning the weekend box office by a shockingly large margin. This is undoubtedly going to be the film that finally pushes M. Night Shyamalan back into the mainstream. But while this is certainly Shyamalan's film through and through, it's impossible to imagine Split without the work of James McAvoy. I can't even imagine how excited the Scottish actor must have been when he read this script, which is a brilliant series of roles for any actor, especially one of McAvoy's caliber. He's too witty and clever to ever be flat-out scary, but there's something thoroughly unpredictable and chilling about McAvoy's performance(s) in this film. You never know what he'll do next, and there's a lack of trust in the narrative told by whichever identity may be in control at the moment. It takes a long time to peel back the layers of Kevin's mind, and it's a testament to McAvoy that the result is both horrifying and deeply moving. There's plenty of reason to discuss Split's portrayal of DID and whether it is in good taste, but it's important to note that McAvoy never loses site of Kevin's humanity. He creates an unshakably tragic character, one that captivates your attention at every moment.
McAvoy steals the show, and there's no question in my mind that most audiences will be buzzing about his performance. Some are lamenting the fact that Universal didn't give him some kind of Oscar push (either for 2016 or 2017), and I can honestly see him making the cut. But thankfully, McAvoy also receives some terrific backup from Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, who both make a strong impression (the other cast members- not so much). Taylor-Joy broke out thanks to her performance in The Witch, and her stock can only keep rising after this flick. She always has a look of contemplation on her face, like she's reflecting on some kind of serious pain or tragedy this is just bubbling right below the surface. Taylor-Joy is the perfect fit for Casey, and she does excellent work with a dynamic character arc. Some have considered Casey's story to be somewhat exploitative, and I have to disagree- it provides a smart contrast with Kevin's situation, and for me, was the most interesting part of the film. As for Buckley, there's this strain of tender empathy that she maintains at every conceivable moment that made me love her character. Buckley genuinely cares about Kevin, and that is so important to the overall direction of the story.
There has been a fair bit of controversy surrounding the treatment of mental illness in Split, and I won't discount the discussion, nor will I maintain the idea that all mental disorders come from some history of abuse. Shyamalan's film does make some generalizations, and it's understandable that some in the community are upset. But I was surprised by how Split essentially worked as a film about how two people responded to abuse in dangerous ways that threatened their happiness and even their safety. While Kevin clearly has an illness that impairs his entire life, there's quite a bit of emotional conflict to Casey's character as well. Shyamalan compares the two individuals in subtle ways, never overtly comparing their trauma (after all, this is still a violent genre exercise- things can't get too serious). But while the director makes a few missteps in the use of flashbacks and framing devices, there's something profoundly engrossing about a filmmaker using a pulpy concept to tell such a compassionate, heartbreaking story.
But I'm guessing that most audience members won't be there for the performances or the emotional angles. They're buying a ticket to Split to see something strange, bizarre, and maybe even a little frightening. Does the movie deliver? Yes and no. Like I said before, I don't think it's particularly scary, even though it has a few effective moments in the final act. Primarily, Split is a mystery, one told with a good deal of suspense and intrigue. It's definitely a slow burn, perhaps a bit too sluggish at times. Running at 117 minutes, it's just a tad lengthy for my taste, and there are some subplots and scenes that I could easily see getting cut out. And yet for all of the excess fat, Shyamalan never loses sight of the story. Sure, there are stretches where Split loses some of its tension in favor of humor and drama, but that's not to the detriment of the experience. Shyamalan has a really good story with truly complex characters, and the fact that he gives them room to breathe is a smart decision. The result is a thriller that never reaches the dazzling heights of its contemporaries, but still impresses and delivers in its own unique way.
And yet, when things do hit the fan in the third act, Split gets pretty wild. You're never going to be on the edge of your seat, but there's an uncomfortably calm precision to the way that Shyamalan films the material. There are some genuine "WTF" moments, and some stuff that I truly did not see coming. His go-for-broke approach is completely satisfying, and the whole film coalesces in a way that works on almost every level. Split is all kinds of messed up, and it goes in some unexpected directions, but the amazing thing is that everything benefits the greater story. Shyamalan consistently maintains the tragic heart of Split, and that was something that I truly appreciated. If this film was only as tightly wound as 10 Cloverfield Lane, then we might have had a near perfect experience on our hands. Instead, I guess we'll have to settle for a remarkably solid little thriller, one bolstered by the exceptional filmmaking craft of Shyamalan, as well as McAvoy's masterful, endlessly watchable central performance. It's not going to change the game, but it's a Hitchcockian burst of fun that puts a former directorial wunderkind back on track.
*Now, it's time for some Mild Spoilers for the much-discussed twist ending. I won't spoil anything in particular, but if you wish to go in completely blind, without so much as a general clue or mention, I suggest you stop reading right now.*
Of course, you can't talk about a Shyamalan movie without mentioning the twist, and all I've been hearing since Fantastic Fest is how the director had outdid himself with the ending for Split. I went in with sky high expectations, and I was firmly expecting the twist to blow my mind. Thankfully, this morning, I read something on Deadline that managed to temper my expectations. To be quite honest with you, the twist is more of an afterthought than something that has an actual impact on the film. I guarantee you that half of the audience won't even get it, and you can count me as one of those people. I won't say anything more for fear of ruining the experience for anyone, but I'll just say that I was slightly baffled.
THE FINAL GRADE: B (7.3/10)
Image Credits: IMDB/Universal