M. Night Shyamalan’s directing tumble has been well documented. The India-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker blew everyone away with what would become the second-highest grossing film of 1999, The Sixth Sense. A series of decent films followed, with Unbreakable, Signs and even The Village pulling in strong to adequate numbers despite mixed reviews. What followed was an abysmal run: Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth. It was a perplexing series of stinkers; surely this was the end. Nope. Twist!
Shyamalan follows up his surprisingly good 2015 found-footage horror film The Visit with Split, an unsettling, fun, suspenseful horror-thriller that takes a somewhat familiar concept and setup and mostly runs it for all it’s worth.
James McAvoy puts in a seriously impressive performance as a man with severe dissociative identity disorder. He’s quite the troubled individual, and the three girls ““ friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) & Marcia (Jessica Sula) and the outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) ““ he’s kidnapped aren’t going to be in for a good time. They’ll come to know a number of his 23 personalities and will learn to fear what is yet to arrive: the 24th.
Similar to 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Split has much of its narrative take place in a claustrophobic, bunker-like setting and has us on edge as characters try to navigate their way ““ emotionally, psychologically and physically ““ around the very unstable man in charge. Save for a number of plot points, particularly those featuring psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Shyamalan ensures that a good chunk takes place down here and that we feel the desperation and the horror that every tight corner of this closed location brings these girls. And when countless other moments with McAvoy’s volatile villain have him engulfing the lens, you’ll be left wondering where your fingernails went.
A few supporting players aside, this is basically a five-actor show, and boy has Shyamalan gathered himself a nice team of performers to bring this effective little tale to life. Richardson and Sula are both adequate as two school friends caught up in a horrible situation, but it’s Taylor-Joy who’s given the most layered role of the three girls. She knocks it out of the park, giving McAvoy a fantastic protagonist to bounce off. Following riveting, strong work in films such as The Witch and Morgan, the actress continues to show why she’s one to keep an eye on.
But let’s get to the ultimate star of the show: the actor that can convince us of a man with multiple personalities, personalities that include a nine-year-old child, an imposing woman with a seemingly kind disposition, a nervous male fashion designer and an obsessive-compulsive man about go haywire, among others. The actor dips in and out of various characters seemingly on a whim, touching on humour before offering up ferocity and falling into childlike anger, and with diverse accents and speech patterns, occasionally all in the one scene. Furthermore, just at the right moments, there’s a tangible sense of self-aware fun in McAvoy’s turn; some of what he has to do is a little silly, and he knows it. Put it this way: McAvoy has given his best-ever performance here.
Shyamalan’s screenplay mostly falls on the right side of ambitious, avoiding the proud, unprepared leaps that made some of his poor films so eye-roll worthy. And on the flipside of that, he often plays it a little too safe, keeping to an overall very familiar structure and laying on a few too many tired horror tropes. As seems to be the norm, the choices victims make don’t always compute; you’ll want to shake some sense into a few characters before it’s all said and done.
Also, there’s a reliance on reveals that doesn’t always pay off. Sure, things can make a little more sense with plot reveals, but sometimes it’s best to be left with some unsettling mystery instead of ramming home every idea the film may have been holding under the surface. Nevertheless, in the series of reveals/twists that fly out in the last act, it’s hard to deny that a number of them are fun and well thought out.
This is a confidently crafted, crowd-pleasing, tense outing from a filmmaker that seems to be bouncing back with an infectious sense of fun and energy. Fun ideas, a breathless pace, suspenseful sequences and strong performances ““ again, with a standout turn from McAvoy ““ make Split a true return to form for Shyamalan.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10