An engaging, stylish new psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.
By Alex Welch
THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE ADVANCE REVIEW.
After emerging in the ’90s and early 2000s as one of the top directors to watch thanks to films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, it’s no secret that M. Night Shyamalan’s career began to experience an unfortunate downward spiral starting with 2004’s The Village leading up to the truly irredeemable Last Airbender and the absurd After Earth. Then, after more than a decade of disappointing outings, something strange happened when Shyamalan released The Visit in 2015. Not only was it unlike any other film that he had released up until that point, but the horror tale about kids visiting their disturbing grandparents for the weekend seemed to show the first signs of a possible comeback in the making from Shyamalan.
But if The Visit was Shyamalan’s first hit single in years, then Split – his latest psychological thriller which played ahead of its January release date at AFI Fest on Tuesday, November 15 – is his long-awaited welcome home tour. A stylish and enthralling thriller about a group of teenage girls being held captive by a man with dissociative personality disorder (DID), Split is not only Shyamalan’s best film since Signs, but it’s also one of his best films – period.
Starring James McAvoy as its terrifying lead, Split opens with Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor Joy), a high school loner, at her classmate Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) birthday party. Clearly different than the rest of the girls in her school, Casey ends up scoring a ride home from the party with Claire, Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Claire’s dad (Neal Huff). Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Claire’s dad is attacked outside of the car, and the three girls are each kidnapped by a mysterious man named Kevin (James McAvoy), who keeps them all locked in a strangely pristine basement to be preserved as “sacred food,” while they wait for “The Beast” to arrive and take them.
We learn sooner than the girls do that not everything about Kevin is as it appears, as the film suddenly cuts away from Casey and the other girls to the office of Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a specialist in DID, who meets with Kevin following an out-of-the-blue email from him requesting an “urgent” meeting. When he arrives, he’s not the terse and deep-voiced captor keeping three teenage girls held captive either, but instead refers to himself as Barry, a high-end and kind fashion aficionado who’s been meeting with Dr. Fletcher for years. Wisely, Shyamalan doesn’t take much time before revealing that Kevin is in fact, one of Dr. Fletcher’s patients, who has 23 different personalities all living inside of his head, each created following an intensely traumatic childhood.
While Split’s treatment of mental health won’t be on the receiving end of much praise from those who have actually suffered from DID, Shyamalan uses the illness to his advantage here, telling the story of Casey and her friends trying to escape concurrently with the ongoing relationship between Kevin and Dr. Fletcher, who knows something is going on with her patient, but has to take her time and be careful finding out for sure what it is. As her investigation continues throughout the film, more and more gaps are filled in about Kevin, including insight into how each of his different personalities work, and who they actually are. These include the OCD neat freak that kidnapped Casey and her friends initially, Ms. Priscilla, a creepy motherly figure that harkens back to Norman Bates’ Mother persona from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Barry, Hedwig, a nine year old boy that has more power over Kevin’s psyche than you might initially suspect, and more.
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Once the girls learn of Kevin’s disorder, Casey quickly begins trying to manipulate it to her and her friends’ advantage, trying to befriend Hedwig and convince the little boy to let her and the other girls out. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game of epic, psychological proportions, packed to the brim with (surprise, surprise) more than a few unexpected twists and turns, as Casey and her friends try to escape before “The Beast” arrives and takes them.
Now, only a monster would spoil the film’s biggest twists and shocks, including one or two very spectacular ones that come near the end, but make sure to avoid any and all online discussions about the film nonetheless in the months leading up to its release. Having them spoiled won’t ruin Split for you by any means, but it’ll certain soften the film’s final impact.
While Shyamalan’s script, and the stellar camera work from Mike Gioulakis (who Shyamalan brought onto the project after seeing It Follows) help to give Split its exciting technical prowess, it’s the performances of James McAvoy and Anya Taylor Joy that help elevate it above being just another standard genre piece. Both actors treat the material with a sincerity and commitment that few others might have had the courage to do, balancing delicate emotions and tones like horror, sadness, regret, and even dark comedy with expert precision.
McAvoy will undoubtedly be on the receiving end of the most praise for the film, and justifiably so. He dances between each of Kevin’s different personalities with the kind of grace and scene-chewing bravado that makes this not only one of the best performances of his career so far, but also helps to make Kevin one of the better male villains of the genre to come along in quite some time, if you can even call him that.
After already proving herself in films like The Witch and Morgan earlier this year as well, Anya Taylor Joy shows us once again why she’s such an exciting young talent here. She brings Casey, a character that will likely become even stronger upon repeat viewings, to life with the kind of quiet and raw emotion that not many other actresses her age are capable of.
With the help of his actors and technical crew, Shyamalan has created a film that feels less like a standard horror kidnapping tale, and more like a legitimately moving story about self-discovery. His script is precise and calculated, unfurling each of the film’s mysteries carefully throughout like puzzle pieces, so while Split never quite becomes as scary or terrifying as fans of Shyamalan’s earlier work might suspect, it never loses its way either. This is more of a character study than it is a horror film in the end, about how the pain that we experience in our lives can go on to define us, for better or for worse.
It’s because of this attention to detail in creating his story and two lead characters, that he’s officially managed to climb back up as one of the more exciting directors working today. Make no mistake, Split will be one of the must-see films of next January, but more than anything else, it proves why you should never count a filmmaker like Shyamalan out.
While not perfect, and despite falling victim occasionally to some of the genre’s more frustrating tropes, Split is easily the most exciting, fun, and interesting film M. Night Shyamalan has made in over a decade. It doesn’t manage to be quite as noteworthy as some of his earlier work, but it comes pretty close.