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For better or worse, the ‘big twist’ has become synonymous with M. Night Shyamalan, having his first film The Sixth Sense basically define his career path since. That career has been a checkered one at best, as many of his films have met with less than critical favor. Last year’s The Visit became a sort of return to form for the filmmaker and now with Split, there is further hope we might be seeing a new chapter from this once visionary creative force.
After a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her father offers a ride for her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), an outsider of sorts who accepts. In the parking lot, the girls get into the car, though unseen by them, the father is subdued and a stranger climbs into the driver seat. He sprays the girl with an aerosol drug and drives away. When the girls wake, they are locked in an unfurnished room, kidnapped by a man named Dennis (James McAvoy), though it becomes clear that he is not stable, a man possessed by a number of personalities that range from a young curious boy to a domineering woman and many others, all who claim “The Beast” is coming soon, and he wants to hurt them.
As the girls work to escape, on the outside, Kevin, the host body for all these personalities, is being treated by psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who grows to suspect that something isn’t right with Kevin. She presses him to talk about what is happening in his life that might be different, as she tries to better understand where the personalities came from and why they all now seem obsessed with the coming of the 24th.
Written and directed by Shyamalan, Split is a chilling reminder of just how remarkable a filmmaker he is, despite some weaknesses in the stories he tells. That’s the thing about watching his work, the ever-changing and creative styles that often produce visually impressive films. While his narrative composition might frustrate, there is no escaping the power of his imagery. With Split, he creates a sensational sense of urgency that is wisely about the characters and not about a contrivance. It’s a challenging experience that is made all the more so by its performances.
That begins with McAvoy, who is the best he’s ever been, tearing up the screen with a stunning portrayal of a man consumed by a bewildering cast of characters. The potential for an actor to over-do these types of roles is always a risk and so few make it work, but McAvoy reigns it in with a tightly wound turn that is reminiscent of John Lithgow‘s great work in Brian De Plama‘s Raising Cain (1992). McAvoy creates Kevin as a fun house of animated personalities that are as menacing as they are entertaining, and so by the time the promised Beast does arrive, we are believing in it and as shocked by it as those who witness it.
Buckley is also very good in another stirring performance and Taylor-Joy continues to prove that she is one of today’s most compelling young talents. Despite the film’s concentration on Kevin and his disorder, the story is truly about Casey, and this is where Shyamalan nearly derails the experience, introducing a child abuse theme that feels a unnecessary, or at least, problematic in how it’s presented and how it comes to mirror an event toward the end. The abuse is too lightly glossed over, not that it needs to be more graphic, which it is not, but it attempts to shift our sympathies when we shouldn’t and deepen a character that is already robust enough.
That said, Split is still something to admire. What Shyamalan does, rather than suspend the expected ‘twist’ over our heads, is to soak it in unbearable tension that generates some truly frightening moments. These three girls are not stereotypes screaming in the corners. They are smart, clever, and work to find escape, and they think like we do, asking and answering the same questions that rush to our own minds, and yet we are constantly in fear for them. We are never quite sure what Dennis and the other personalities are capable of and for that reason, we cringe every time the girls must face him.
Split is really one of Shyamalan’s the best films, a supremely well-directed story that is also well-written. While it might not handle the mental health issues with the right touch, and there’s concern with the meaty length, the film is nonetheless a captivating ride, a technical marvel, and genuinely fun experience. The final frame and a stunning cameo will be divisive as it either undermines the authenticity the movie worked hard to establish, or wholeheartedly thrills those who have long wondered about the universe Shymalan films are set.
Movie description: Split is a 2017 psychological thriller about a man with 23 personalities who kidnaps three teenage girls who must escape before the 24th arrives.
Director(s): M. Night Shyamalan
Actor(s): James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Genre: Thriller, Horror