Director: M Night Shyamalan.
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) goes head-to-head with one of Kevin's many personalities,
as portrayed by James McAvoy, while her fellow captives watch on.
IS M Night Shyamalan back in the game?
It seems his career has finally finished bottoming out. After writing and directing one of the best films of the ‘90s – The Sixth Sense – the quality of his output began slowly dropping off in its wake, through cult favourite Unbreakable, the spooky sci-fi Signs and the love-it-or-hate-it drama-thriller The Village.
After those diminishing returns, his films really dipped into the sub-par region – The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth are three of the worst films of the past decade.
However his 2015 low-budget found-footage horror The Visit won some critics and fans back, and now with the release of Split, some are heralding the return of Shyamalan.
But that would be getting carried away. Split is good, but not great, and it’s certainly his best film since The Village, but that’s not saying much. And the truth is Split’s success is more due to the skills of McAvoy in the lead role than the directing or writing skills of Shyamalan.
McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder (DID) that manifests as 23 different personalities. When one of those personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three girls, it sets off a struggle between his other identities. What does Dennis have in mind for the girls, and can the they escape before a rumoured 24th personality turns up?
DID, a controversial psychological diagnosis, has been popular in film and literature for a long time – The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is an early example – and Shyamalan’s script probes and prods the idea into interesting places. But as is typical of his post-Unbreakable work, his script feels a couple of drafts away from being great. Awkward exposition, plot-holes and logical lapses are dotted between the excellence – for every cool moment or strong line is a forehead-slapping character brain fade.
What Shyamalan does get right is the tone. The Visit was criticised for struggling to balance its humour and its horror but there is no such problem here. Amid Split’s brooding terror are some genuine belly laughs, but they give the film a sense of dynamics, allowing that tension to rise again, rather than ruin the mood and break the tone completely.
As mentioned before, the real hero here is McAvoy, who slips easily between the half dozen or so personalities of Kevin that we see on the screen. In an already stellar career rapidly filling with great performances, this is one of his best. Whether it be as the hilarious nine-year-old Kanye West-loving personality of Hedwig or the more frightening identities of Dennis or Miss Patricia, McAvoy is continually impressive, making a potentially ridiculous or film-destroying character its saving grace. Split would be a far lesser film without him.
Taylor-Joy acquits herself well as one of Kevin’s captives, and Buckley is okay as Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr Fletcher but struggles under the weight of the film’s worst dialogue and most awkward scenes. The other two captives, played by Richardson and Sula, are forgettable.
Shyamalan’s trademark twists are present here, which means talking about the ending is impossible. I will say that part of the ending is troubling, and I still can’t figure out if it sends a bad message to young girls or a positive one. But one thing is certain about the ending – it’s an interesting payoff for a strange film, going some way towards making Split ultimately satisfying.
Is M Night Shyamalan back in the game? Thanks to James McAvoy, it seems like he’s on his way.