Dir: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anna Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Shula, Brad William Henke
4 STARS (out of 5)
M. Night Shyamalan. It’s a name that conjures up all sorts of thoughts and opinions, particularly if you’re an avid movie-goer – he’s a writer, producer and director that arguably changed the game when it came to suspense thrillers with the likes of The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable. However, in recent years, his name became rather associated with a number of his own directorial quirks – putting himself into his movies a la Alfred Hitchcock, and inserting a last-act twist, often at the end of the script, that puts the whole film on its head. While twists can work with the right foreshadowing, they can feel clunky if they are too out of left-field – Shyamalan, too, suffered critical backlash from the release of movies such as The Last Airbender, Lady in The Water and After Earth. However, he’s returned to his low-budget roots of late, and Split is quoted by many to be a possible return to form.
Split centres around Kevin (McAvoy), who kidnaps three teenage girls and imprisons them in a compound below ground. Slowly, it materialises that Kevin is not alone in his own body – he’s host to 23 separate personalities and identities – and that at least two of these personalities have an agenda for the girls that may or may not be based in the planes of reality. Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher, is keen to prove to the world that people with dissociative identities can in fact manifest their own physical attributes and can take on their own powers – and Kevin is perhaps her most interesting patient to help prove this. What will happen to the girls, and exactly why is Kevin and his 22 other personalities keeping them down there? Can Dr Fletcher prove her hypothesis?
First things first – Split is a great thriller. It absolutely succeeds at making things particularly tense when they need to be, and Shyamalan – for all his criticism and retraction over the years – is still a fantastic visual director. This is a dark, grimy, foreboding movie, and one that grows more tense with each minute. It’s largely helped by a script which, unlike much of the director’s previous, benefits from a huge amount of foreshadowing, and a great deal of the plot being drip-fed as and when it is required. This really does help to propel the film towards its conclusion with gusto.
Let’s also cut to the chase on the acting front – McAvoy is incredible here. This is the ideal showcase for his range, his affectations and his ability to deliver a variety of people from one second to the next. One scene where he switches from one personality to another, and then another, needs to be seen to be believed – he embodies people’s minute tics, behaviours and even wears the clothes they sport in a natural and uncompromising fashion. For millions he may still be young Charles Xavier, but Split should stand as a testament to McAvoy’s genuine insight and ability – he is beyond astonishing, but, he sadly carries much of the acting talent. With someone else in the lead, would Split have been anywhere as tense, as grotesque, or as affecting? Perhaps not.
The main problems that Split faces centres around the three girls who find themselves kidnapped. Taylor-Joy is very much a name to watch and offers a fascinating, unique performance that works in stark contrast to her fellow prisoners, who often seem to struggle with the dialogue they are given – this may very well be a problem with the dialogue at stake, and that, ultimately, the girls are pretty much sidelined from the second act onwards. This is a sore point – by the third act, they feel more or less to be a plot device – and while Taylor-Joy’s past and character remains important, we find out about her backstory far too little, far too late, and as a result her story is not fairly sewn into the plot’s narrative enough to resonate quite as well as it could have.
The final act, while intense and satisfyingly thrilling, drifts into an intensely sad climax – perhaps this isn’t the most satisfying conclusion, but it’s a mark of Shyamalan’s bravery – despite the critical backlash that he may have received over the years, he is not marked altogether for a lack of quality in his films. Split is absolutely a return to form for the director, and this goes even without pointing out the brilliant final five to ten seconds of the movie that occurs after the main title appears one last time. There are no spoilers to be found here – but it’s safe to say that the director pulls one final twist from up his sleeve in a movie that is largely free from clunky dues ex machina with absolute gusto. It’s truly unexpected, and opens up many, many more doors. It’s safe to say, therefore, that Shyamalan is back – and while Split has flaws, it is all the while a great watch.