By Andrew Haas
When it comes to filmmakers who have fallen from grace, one of the first names to come to mind is M. Night Shyamalan. Once upon a time, he was seen as revolutionary when he directed The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. But sadly, the films he made after those seemed to do serious damage to his credibility, leading to when he hit rock bottom in 2010 with the infamously bad The Last Airbender film adaptation. However, things were starting to look brighter when 2014’s The Visit gained a more generous response from critics and audiences. Now he has fully gone back to his thriller roots with Split. Could this film be a sign of a return to form for the director? Well, it’s not perfect, but I’m going to go ahead and say “yes.”
In the film, three girls have been kidnapped by Kevin, played by James McAvoy, a man who has an unusual case of having twenty-three separate personalities. Now the girls must find a way out of their imprisonment before Kevin unleashes what he proclaims to be “the beast.”
The story is another “escape from captor” thriller, but of course with the addition of dissociative identity disorder. This does bring an extra element of suspense, as you never know which identities can be persuaded and which ones should be feared. In terms of direction, this is one of Shyamalan’s better looking films. The cinematography alone is nice to look at, and each shot is well constructed and atmospheric. One shot that stands out is a still shot where the nine-year-old personality does a dance for Casey in his room. The framing adds to the uncomfortable feeling of watching someone go insane. There are only a couple times where the compositions feel odd, like they are trying to be more artistic than they really are.
The best thing in this film is McAvoy as Kevin and his multiple personalities. I went in expecting him to be too goofy like Mark Wahlberg in The Happening. Thankfully, McAvoy manages to pull off playing various characters who happen to share a body. He isn’t just changing his voice and wardrobe; his physical movements are distinct between each persona and add to their believability, for the most part. I never knew which personality would come up next and when, helping me feel the fear that the kidnapped girls were going through. But he’s not the only good actor in the film. There’s also Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, the main focus of the three girls who is dealing with a traumatic past as she attempts to think her way out of the situation. Outside of the girls, there’s a psychiatrist played by Betty Buckley who shines in trying to make sense of the special case Kevin has to the world, even when he starts to act suspicious towards her. The rest of the actors are passable, though not as interesting as the main three. And that’s not the only issue with this film.
Shyamalan still struggles when it comes to writing dialogue. While there are some good lines, others tend to come off as awkward and unnatural. The actors do their best to deliver what’s given to them, but there were still moments where l found myself wondering who would talk like this. There’s also an element to the story involving Casey’s backstory that may be important in the end, but is integrated so randomly throughout the film that I questioned its purpose every time it came up. By the time the climax came, I felt my suspension of disbelief being pushed. While I was still rooting for the girls’ to escape, the “scary” element of Kevin was starting to border on silly B-movie territory. But just as I was starting be taken out of the film, the end happens.
I spent most of the third act searching for what the possible signature twist would be. Before the credits roll, an extra scene comes with a reveal that I did not see coming and makes a huge difference in how the rest of the film is viewed. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say that the twist won’t be easy to get for some people, especially those who aren’t too familiar with all of Shyamalan’s work. But those who do get it are in for quite a surprise.
In the end, M. Night Shyamalan still has some kinks to work out, but Split shows a lot of potential for his future. The main leads give great performances, the atmosphere around Kevin is chilling for the most part, and the final reveal is bound to catch viewers off guard. Sure, some elements are clunky and almost ridiculous, but they aren’t enough to stop me from being glad that I saw this film. I say it’s worth checking out.