Split is the best M. Night Shyamalan creation in recent memory, as anchored by a great performance (or, rather, performances) by James McAvoy.
An outsider at her high school, Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy) is begrudgingly invited to a birthday party by one of her peers, Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and ends up having to get a ride home afterwards, with Claire and her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). However, what started out as a awkward social event suddenly turns into a nightmare for Casey when she, Claire and Marcia are kidnapped in broad daylight by a mysterious man and then taken to his home, unable to make any contact the outside world and with nary a possible escape (nor a clue as to where they might be, save for somewhere underground) in sight.
It turns out the man who kidnapped the three young women is Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder or DID, who has no less than twenty-three personalities – ranging from the obsessive-compulsive Dennis to matriarchal Patricia and boyish Hedwig. As Casey and the others struggle to find an escape from their prison, Kevin’s therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) starts to realize that something is off about her patient… and that it might be related to a sinister twenty-fourth personality that Kevin has mentioned in the past, but whom she doesn’t believe is actually real.
Split is the latest original drama/thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, as well as the second collaboration between Shyamalan and low-budget horror/thriller specialist Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Purge) after The Visit. The relationship between the two filmmaking forces proves to be a fruitful one with Split, in turn allowing Shyamalan to further put his run of critically derided big-budget movies (The Last Airbender, After Earth) behind him. Split is the best M. Night Shyamalan creation in recent memory, as anchored by a great performance (or, rather, performances) by James McAvoy.
The majority of Split unfolds as a single setting drama/thriller, playing to its director’s strengths as a storyteller who excels at generating Hitchcockian suspense and tension through minimalism. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Shyamalan and It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Split is visually sharp and creates a pronounced sense of claustrophobia through its framing of the narrow corridors, hidden spaces and rooms that make up Kevin’s mysterious underground lair. Split‘s low-budget aesthetic fuels its director’s imagination in this respect, spurning Shymalan to be more inventive with how he stages and films the more action-driven sequences featured here (in particular, the movie’s climax). At the same time, Split as a whole is more intimate in its scope, often using subjective camera angles and perspectives to keep the focus on not only the main character’s experiences, but also the performances behind them.
James McAvoy has a habit of delivering fully-committed performances in even subpar fare, but Split provides the actor with a better opportunity to show off his range as Kevin and the twenty-two other personalities that exist within his mind. McAvoy spends most of the film playing but a handful of those personalities (primarily, Dennis, Patricia and Hedwig), yet he successfully distinguishes each of those “characters”, as well as those who only make brief appearances here, in terms of their facial and vocal mannerisms alike. Split explores the intricacies of Kevin’s mental condition through the course of its world-building here (more on that momentarily), in the process creating a more complex origin story for McAvoy’s antagonist and making him far more sympathetic than your average horror/thriller movie “monster”. That being said, Split may, well, split moviegoers over just how successfully it subverts (or doesn’t subvert) the familiar trope of a villain who is disabled, either mentally and/or physically.
Betty Buckley is given a much more substantial role in Split than she was as the infamous lemon-drink loving Mrs. Jones in Shyamalan’s The Happening, as Kevin’s therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher. The Dr. Fletcher character is responsible for delivering much of the “world-building” dialogue here as she explains the how and why behind Kevin’s condition in the film – though thankfully, that exposition and “mythology-building” is compelling by itself. While the Dr. Fletcher character herself is interesting in her own right, Split only hints at a more intricate backstory for the character and why, exactly, she connects so well with Kevin and other DID patients. It’s possible that a longer cut of the movie better fleshes out Dr. Fletcher’s history – and if so, the theatrical version of Split might have benefitted from exploring more of her personal background.
The Witch breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy delivers another worthy horror/thriller film performance in Split as Casey, the most introverted of the three young women kidnapped by Kevin – as well as the one who has a (tragic) backstory that thematically parallels that of her captor. While Split‘s unusual treatment of Kevin’s condition will, as mentioned before, likely prove to be a divisive issue for moviegoers, the film’s exploration of how emotional and/or physical trauma affects people through Casey’s personal story thread, is more conventional but also tasteful and sensitive in its own right. The young women played by Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and Jessica Sula (Skins) end up feeling more like traditional stock horror archetypes by comparison, due to their lack of development, but serve their purpose in the larger narrative well enough here.
Between its precise direction and McAvoy’s engaging scenery-chewing performance, Split is one of Shymalan’s better offerings and certainly his most consistent from the past several years, in terms of quality. The film still has some of the now-infamous hallmarks of Shymalan’s work over the years (like occasionally stilted dialogue, as well as a somewhat extraneous cameo by the director himself), but at the same time provides evidence of the filmmaker’s continued ability to craft a crackling genre film with greater thematic depth than its pulpy B-movie premise suggests. And yes, there is a big reveal in Split – but to say more than that risks spoiling the fun.
Split is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.
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