Split (2017, USA, d. M. Night Shyamalan, 117 minutes)
by Noah Damron
After falling on hard times with films such as “Lady in the Water”, “The Happening’ and “The Last Airbender”, M. Night Shyamalan, who was once hailed as “The Next Spielberg”, seemed to be a lost star. With a career so promising with films like “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs”, hope for the director to return to his roots had seemed lost. That is until late 2015 with the micro-budgeted sleeper hit “The Visit”. Not only was it a step in the right direction with audiences, but critics were fond of it as well. Fast forward to early 2017, Shyamalan continues his comeback with “Split”. If “The Visit” was a first base hit, “Split” is at least a three base run.
Starring the underrated James McAvoy, “Split” follows a man (McAvoy) with 23 different personalties who kidnaps three teenagers ( Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Liu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and keeps them in an underground bunker, while the threat of a 24th personality begins to surface.
This is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since “Unbreakable”. With Shyamalan’s last film “The Visit”, many sensed that he was going back to his roots of lower-budgeted Thrillers and was a welcome surprise for many. With “Split”, he continues the trend and takes it one step further. “Split” is a knockout!
James McAvoy gives a fearless performance as “Kevin”, a man with 23 different personalities with a possible 24th emerging called “The Beast”. McAvoy goes for it in every sense imaginable. This film simply wouldn’t work with a lesser actor and McAvoy steps up to the plate!
The supporting cast including Betty Buckley as Kevin’s psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as the lead protagonist all give solid work. Buckley shines in the many scenes she shares with McAvoy and also has the difficult task of delivering some extremely “out there” lines and manages to do so with ease. Anya Taylor-Joy delivers some much needed subtlety to her role and she never falls into the cliche “final girl” trope.
Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis make great use of the small setting and move the camera in ways that really make you feel claustrophobic, which adds to the films tension.
And of course, it wouldn’t be an M. Night Shyamalan film without a twist and my god… there is… there is a quite a twist. To even hint at what it is would be a crime, but I will say this; if you do not understand it, just simply google “Split ending” and you will understand completely.
Shyamalan isn’t quite perfect, however. Although this isn’t a film one should take seriously about its depiction of mental illness, Shyamalan delves a bit too deep in exploitation territory with several of the themes he touches on. In particular, we see in flashback, the backstory behind Anya Taylor-Joy’s character and her history of abuse and while Shyamalan does intend to creep you out (he succeeds), he doesn’t seem mature enough to handle such deep material and comes off as immature at times. Some people may find this incredibly problematic and downright offensive, I for one, was bothered a bit by it.
With those problems aside, “Split” is a true return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. With a career-best performance by James McAvoy, stylish cinematography and some truly disturbing moments of terror, this is a thriller that will go down as one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best and definitely a whole lot better than what we’re used to in the month of January.