Release Date: January 20, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures / Blumhouse Productions
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Release Format: Theatrical
Back in the late 90’s, a young up and coming director named M. Night Shyamalan made a little movie called The Sixth Sense. The film was a huge success with both critics and audiences. Furthermore, it managed to score big at the box office earning $672.8 Million on a $40 Million budget. In addition, M. Night continued to hit it big with Unbreakable & Signs. As a result, at one point he’d been hailed as “The Next Spielberg”. However, what comes up must sadly come back down. M. Night had begun making films that for one reason or another, just couldn’t win over critics or audiences. The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening & The Last Airbender were all panned and ridiculed upon release. It seemed that the once great up and coming talent had been lost to us.
That was until 2015 when M. Night released The Visit, a found footage horror film. The film was stylish, creepy and fun, containing a shocking twist that brought back the feel of Shyamalan’s early work. The Visit was a modest success and a return to form for Shyamalan. However, there were many that dismissed The Visit as a fluke, claiming that Shyamalan just got lucky. Well, if Split doesn’t shut those naysayers up, I don’t know what will. Split is not only one of Shyamalan’s best works, it is his best film since Unbreakable back in 2000. M. Night is back, baby!
Split opens with the kidnapping of three teenage girls by Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, a mental disorder which allows his brain to occupy many different personalities. These 23 personalities range from a nine-year-old child to a British nanny to an OCD pedophile. However, he doesn’t just randomly kidnap these girls. Evidently, they were all taken for a distinct purpose; to feed The Beast, the 24th personality that will soon take control of Kevin’s brain. Now, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) must discover a way out of their captor’s clutches before it’s too late.
First and foremost, James McAvoy gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen as Kevin. He plays all of these different personalities with such conviction, you could swear he was actually insane in real life. Whether he’s playing the mischievous Hedwig or the calm and collective Patricia, McAvoy’s performance never ceases to amaze in this film. He can be frightening, playful, calm or scary. No matter what, Kevin Wendall Crumb was a brilliantly written character played by one of the best actors working today. I will nitpick a touch as the movie clearly states that 24 personalities occupy Kevin’s mind and yet we only see 9 of them in the film. I would have liked to see those other personalities showcased but it’s fine. Fingers crossed on a sequel.
Anya Taylor-Joy has also proven herself to be an actress of great presence as of late. In 2016, she starred in both The Witch and Morgan. Anya Taylor-Joy gave great performances in both films and Split is no exception. I would argue this was the best performance she has given. Shyamalan gives her character, Casey Cooke, so much depth and intrigue and Taylor-Joy’s performance sells every second of it. The flashbacks of her as a child, going through a specific trauma, were as beautifully handled as they were sadistically written. During the film, Claire and Marcia want to try and escape, while Casey wants to hold off and stay put. At first, something like this doesn’t feel right. However, once the character’s backstory comes into play, it becomes completely understandable.
However, while Casey was a clear and interesting main character, I can’t say the same for Claire or Marcia. The actresses give fine performances and they aren’t bad characters. However, there wasn’t enough about them within Split‘s runtime to make me care about them. So much attention was put on Casey that, at times, I almost forgot that there were two other kidnapped girls in the movie. I think Shyamalan could have done more with those characters to add to the suspense. I certainly understand the distance between the three characters. Casey is a more important character in the grand scheme of things. However, when three girls are kidnapped, I find it better to care what happens to all of them. Not just one.
What kind of makes up for this though is Betty Buckley’s performance as Dr. Karen Fletcher? Fletcher had the ability to bring out the humanity in Kevin, something that was certainly needed in a film like this. The scenes of her marveling over who Kevin is and what he can potentially become were fascinating. In addition, the chemistry between her and McAvoy is spot on. Fletcher views her patients as her family so you feel the connection between her and Kevin. You may remember Betty Buckley as Ms. Collins from Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie. I have to admit, it was actually clever of Shyamalan to cast her as this character. I’m not sure if it was an intentional nod to Carrie, a story of a bullied teenage girl who discovers she has psychic powers, or not. However, regardless, it comes off as a really clever nod to it.
With that said, the suspense in the movie is absolutely gripping. Shyamalan directs this movie with such precision and every shot is near perfect. This movie oozes with suspense and dread around every corner. It carries shades of Alfred Hitchcock, something we haven’t seen from Shyamalan since Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense before it. The film is perfectly paced and never feels rushed or predictable. Split is definitely a film that keeps you guessing until the genius twist at the end. I wouldn’t dare spoil what that twist is in this review but I will say this; if you are familiar with Shyamalan’s work, this twist will floor you. The twist doesn’t come out of anywhere either. Like Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, the film drops several hints as to what is really going on, the score of the film being one of them. I’ve said too much…
West Dylan Thordson’s score for Split is nothing short of haunting. Split already had great atmosphere but the musical score adds to that atmosphere, giving the viewer a higher sense of unease. This is especially relevant when the climax hits and the music kick into high gear. Speaking of the climax, let me explain something to you before going into this movie. You may be asked to suspend your disbelief a great deal during the final act of the film. At times, it may feel like you are suspending it a little too much. However, just stick with it because the last 10 seconds of the film will tell and show you everything you need to know. Trust me, when those final moments come sneaking around the corner, your jaw will drop and everything will become clear.
Overall, from the acting to the climax, to the haunting score, Split represents a beautiful return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. A few characters could have been better defined and it would have been nice to see more of the 24 personalities inside Kevin instead of just 9. But aside from those few nitpicks, Split is a tense, gripping and suspenseful thriller from start to finish. M. Night directs it beautifully, he gets grade-A performances from all of his actors and he proves that, despite a few big missteps in his career, The Visit certainly wasn’t a fluke. This director surely isn’t throwing in the towel just yet.
Mr. Shyamalan, it’s great to have you back.