In 1999, few film directors were getting as much buzz as M. Night Shyamalan. Hot off of the release of his breakout hit The Sixth Sense, people were eager to see what he would do next. While his next few releases, Unbreakable and Signs, were met with generally positive reviews, it was clear that the quality of his movies was slowly deteriorating. A decade later, his movies were becoming critically panned. Ask anyone who saw The Last Airbender or The Happening and they probably won’t have much, if anything, good to say about it. However, in 2015, Shyamalan surprised skeptic audiences with his horror-comedy The Visit. With the announcement of his next movie, Split, a thriller starring James McAvoy as a man diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder who abducts three teenage girls, many were cautiously excited. Would Shyamalan be able to produce two hits in a row after nearly a whole decade of misfires? This reviewer is happy to say that he absolutely accomplished this task.
The movie opens with the three girls in question at a birthday party. Casey was invited out of pity and her ride bailed on her. Instead of making her take public transportation, Claire’s dad offers to drop her off at her place. From this point on, it begins to all go downhill. Shyamalan does not waste time building the intensity of the situation, as I was already on the edge of my seat five minutes into the film. Shyamalan’s directing and shot composition are absolutely brilliant in this film, starting with a POV shot within the car that allows the audience to see Casey’s dead, hopeless reaction to the beginnings of what is to be one of the worst experiences of her life. Having a first glimpse of James McAvoy, in a tour de force role, staring silently and menacingly at the girls before he knocks them out to take them back to his basement is a truly chilling scenario. Other standout shots that come to mind are a dizzying vertical shot of one of the most extravagant staircases I’ve ever seen and a shot within the room that the girls are held in that truly shows the divide between Casey and her “friends.”
Anya-Taylor Joy is wonderful as Casey. While not given as hefty of a script as she was given in last year’s Puritanical-era horror The Witch, she has the perfect stone-eyed and strong-willed demeanor for the role, and a scene where she watches the antagonist dance while her tears well up in silence is particularly moving. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and Jessica Sula(Skins), who played the other two girls captured. They very easily fit into the cliché trope of privileged, naive teen girls in a horror movie. This can probably be blamed more on the script than their performances. One of the multiple personalities of Kevin has OCD, which could be an interesting quirk if it didn’t feel like there were times when it was used as a tool to get these girls out of their clothes and firmly into their role as eye candy. While this did not ruin the movie for me, I can see how it would be a bit insulting to other viewers. Another performance of note is Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by a wonderful Betty Buckley (The Happening), who brings heart and some slightly heavy-handed exposition to the story.
However, the standout performance, and the reason this movie is receiving most of the buzz it has, is James McAvoy. As the dissociate identity disorder diagnosed Kevin, McAvoy ends up giving what amounts to six performances. Going beyond just a simple change in voice, his body language, facial expressions, and posture can change in the blink of an eye. This makes his performance a genuine treat to watch as the audience waits for him to reveal his 24th personality.
I was intrigued by the ideas that this movie brought up about dissociative identity disorder. Dr. Fletcher discusses at length several times throughout the film that maybe those with this disorder aren’t lesser than us, but that they have unlocked the true potential of our brains. She even cites certain cases, such as one where a patient was blind in some personalities, but could see in others. Through revelations into the pasts of both Casey and Kevin, Shyamalan wants to show us all that “the broken are the more evolved.” Those who have never dealt with any hardships in their lives are unable to harden themselves against the world, and Kevin doesn’t believe people like that belong in this world.
One aspect of the film that could have used some work, at least in the first half, was the pacing. The flashbacks of Casey’s childhood often broke up the early tension and plot development of the present-day storyline early on in the film, leaving me to wonder where they were heading with this thread. This is forgivable, as the flashbacks are essential for Casey’s final development from a helpless teenager to a strong woman who never backs down from standing up to monsters. I do caution that the flashbacks could seem exploitative and offensive to some, although I thought it was a riveting plot point that tackles a subject that too many films are afraid to bring up these days.
The final act of the movie almost feels rushed when in comparison to the slow build-up of the first half. The slow-burn of the girls trying to figure out how to escape and why this man has kidnapped them quickly makes way for a montage of gore, dark corridors, a shotgun, and some revelations that just have to be seen. Be sure not to walk out right away, as there’s a scene partially into the credits that adds an additional layer of intrigue to the story to those who were truly paying attention. While some may see it is unnecessary and tacked on, others may view it as an impressive piece of world-building. Either way, Split is a must-see for any horror or thriller fans, even if it’s just to see McAvoy’s stellar performance.
Split is filled with mostly amazing performances by all of the main actors and features a plot that intrigues enough and moves fast enough to keep it a thrill ride until the credits roll. Shyamalan has returned to form with his past two movies, but only time will tell if he can continue on the path of restoring his name to the pedestal it once rested on.
– James McAvoy
– Anya Taylor-Joy
– Beautiful cinematography
– Intriguing concepts
– Weaker performances from other teen characters
– Some pacing issues
– Tacked on ending
– Could handle some darker subject matter better
I give Split a 7.5/10