Straight up front before starting this Split review – I am an M. Night Shyamalan fan. I know that it is the trendy thing to hate Shyamalan but I never bought into it. Sure, nothing he has done has matched up to his early work with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, but his work should be judged project to project and not on a curve based on his early work. I say this because there are many film critics who are predisposed to hate M. Night Shyamalan no matter what he does and their reviews are easy to see through.
With that said – on to my Split review.
M. Night Shyamalan returned to form in 2015 with The Visit. That was a claustrophobic horror movie that utilized the overused found-footage format yet somehow managed to remain a very good film nonetheless. This year, he is back with another horror movie, but this time it is a thriller that proves that he is still working at a high level when it comes to his actual directing.
Of course, few people say that M. Night can’t direct. It is his scripts that critics find problems with. With this movie, it is clear that Shyamalan has done a lot of research into many of the ideas surrounding dissociative identity disorder (DID). That is not to say that Split is an accurate portrayal of someone with DID, but he did use it as a nice plot device for a horror thriller and that is what matters here, even though much of the dialogue when it comes to DID is gobbledygook.
James McAvoy is Kevin, a man who kidnaps three teenaged girls from a birthday party and holds them captive. While the tense scenes in the movie take place in the undisclosed subterranean location where he is holding them captive, there are reprieves for the audience when Kevin visits his psychiatrist, the kind-hearted De. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). It is through her that the audience is able to see into the world of Kevin as Dr. Fletcher says Kevin has 23 different and distinct personalities living in his mind.
When he visits Dr. Fletcher, he is Barry, a fashion designer who is the mouthpiece of Kevin when he has his sessions. However, what Dr. Fletcher learns is that Barry is not really the man visiting her now. Instead, Kevin’s psyche has been taken over by three of his personalities – the strong and determined Dennis, the dominating female Patricia, and the nine-year-old Hedwig – known to the other personalities as the Hoard. It is these three personalities that control Kevin when he kidnaps the three girls and they have ominous plans involving a mysterious 24th personality known only as The Beast.
James McAvoy is a tour-de-force in this movie. If this was a movie by someone other than M. Night Shyamalan, McAvoy could easily pick up awards recognition for his performance. He is able to alter each new character using changes in voice, changes in posture, and in some instances, complete changes in his entire physical persona. There is a moment when he changes from Barry into Dennis that is smooth and frightening and he really carries this movie to a high level.
Out of the three girls, only one of them gets any real attention. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are friends and normal people – or as Kevin calls them, sheltered girls who never had to live in the real world. Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), on the other hand, is a trouble maker and the only reason she was with the other two girls was because they felt guilty and invited her to a birthday party. They are all three kidnapped after the birthday party and taken to a room with a bed and a bathroom and the statement that they would be gifts to The Beast.
Only Casey gets strong character work. When the movie is not focused on the girls trying to escape or Kevin visiting Dr. Fletcher, there are flashbacks of Casey as a young girl with her dad and uncle. These are interspersed throughout the movie and explain why she is a social outcast and why she is stronger than the other two girls, both of which only have a basic knowledge of survival skills. Taylor-Joy, who impressed people in The VVitch last year, was great as a dark and calculating survivor, trying to beat Kevin by careful planning and waiting for her time.
Last year, 22 Cloverfield Lane displayed a great story of a person held captive and their attempts to escape. Split is smart because it goes at this similar story from a different angle and it pays off. This movie actually touches on the supernatural by suggesting that there is a part of a person’s psyche that can make them special and unlock powers that humans only dream of. There are scenes that really examines this idea but they never overpower the claustrophobic idea that the story is – at heart – about three young girls desperately trying to escape from a madman and that is what makes this thriller so effective.
There are people who complain that the movie was not accurate for people with DID, but it was never meant to be. This movie is something else completely, and that is all revealed in what might be the best ending to a movie in M. Night Shyamalan’s career. Seriously, that ending adds to my appreciation for Split as a movie.
At the end of the film, Split is exactly what I thought it would be – an effective psychological thriller. However, at the very end of the movie, it was so much more than that and has me excited for what M. Night Shyamalan does next.