Split is an appropriate title and the subject of split personalities is fitting for M. Night Shyamalan’s latest directorial effort. It’s interesting because the filmmaker has basically had two careers: One as the critical and commercial darling of Hollywood where he was praised as “The next Spielberg” and the other, uglier side.
From 1999 to 2002, the director released The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. The first and last of these were box office juggernauts and in the case of The Sixth Sense, it received multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture. Unbreakable wasn’t as successful, but it did receive positive reviews upon its release and has since become a bit of a cult classic.
But after Signs, you can basically draw a line dividing his great films from his truly awful ones. The Village is actually a pretty good movie until the ending completely derails it and The Lady in the Water is a story that feels like fan-fiction with Shyamalan actually writing himself into the movie as the savior. He was beginning to buy into his own hype.
From there it just gets worse. The Happening is laughably bad (Emphasis on the laughs) and with The Last Airbender and After Earth as a director-for-hire, he managed to both alienate an entire fan base with the former and jumpstart the demise of Will Smith as a major box office draw with the latter.
This brings us to The Visit which was a sort of back-to-basics for the filmmaker. Working on a limited budget, he managed to create an effective little horror film. Shyamalan received his best reviews in more than a decade and the film made a decent profit at the box office.
But he was still flying under the radar with that one. In the case of Split, he’s front and center once again with his name featured in every promotional material for the film. This is his “I’m back” statement. But is he truly back? The answer is, sort of.
Split stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man with 23 different personalities. One of those people, Dennis, believes another personality is forming. In order for it to come to fruition, he needs sacrifices in the form of three girls he abducts.
One of those girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), has been through trauma before. Because of this, she has the ability to remain calm and figure out how to escape by taking advantage of some of Kevin’s personalities while avoiding others.
It’s an interesting premise that could have been constantly unpredictable and tense, but Shyamalan undermines that momentum by following another character, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who acts as Kevin’s physiologist. Her character seems to exist for no other reason than to spout exposition about the mind and Kevin. A little explanation about Kevin’s past is necessary and you could argue she keeps him relatively stable until the third act, but she’s dead weight in the end.
The film also cuts to Casey’s traumatic past multiple times. Shyamalan did this to great effect in Signs, but here the placement of those moments felt jumbled since they were competing with Fletcher’s scenes.
Another disappointing aspect to the film is Shyamalan’s direction. The actual abduction scene which takes place in a parking lot is truly terrifying and expertly crafted. It reminded me of Shyamalan’s early work. But once we get in that basement, he seemingly abandons suspense in favor of showcasing McAvoy’s acting abilities.
I should have felt claustrophobic in that basement and instead felt somewhat bored by the ordinary shot selection. However, a sense of dread and unease is present thanks to West Dylan Thordson’s excellent musical score.
As for acting, McAvoy and Taylor-Joy are the standouts. You can tell McAvoy is absolutely loving this truly delicious role. He manages to be both creepy and subtle at the same time. Taylor-Joy follows up her great work in The Witch with another great turn as a young woman with issues. For someone with such a serene face and doll-like eyes, she manages to convey a lot of different emotions.
The suspense does pick up in the third act, but save for a great scene down a tunnel, certain characters are predictably disposed of and the location of Kevin’s lair is kind of ridiculous.
That brings us to the conclusion. In classic Shyamalan fashion, he pulls the rug right under us with an ending that had my mouth wide open. It’s an ending that makes you rethink everything you’ve seen before and makes the film re-watchable which is interesting considering the film itself is just okay. It’s basically the opposite of The Village in that way.
Is this a return to form for Shyamalan? Not completely, but he’s on the right track. Split has an interesting premise, good performances and an excellent twist ending. But the suspense is few and far between thanks to curious directions taken with the script. Having said all that, it’s still his best film since The Village. But that’s not exactly saying much.