If 2015’s The Visit was a mild stepping stone back to greatness for M. Night Shyamalan, then Split is his attempt to hit a home run, and whilst he doesn’t quite hit that home run he still does give a damn good effort because Split is without a doubt his best film in over a decade.
This film follows three teenage girls who get kidnapped in broad daylight by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man diagnosed with a dissociative identity disorder. Kevin has 23 different identities within his mind and these girls don’t have much time to escape their place of captivity, before Kevin unleashes his 24 identity, The Beast.
This film wastes no time getting into the thick of things which is something I greatly appreciate. Usually films of this kind spend a large portion of the opening act setting up and introducing characters for far too long, Shyamalan smartly avoids this common trait which results in the film catching you off guard and drawing you in to it’s mystery very quickly within the opening five minutes. The opening leaves you with many questions, who is Kevin? Why did he kidnap these girls? What is his motivation for doing this?
I admire the script M. Night Shyamalan has written for a number of reasons, the most obvious of reasons is the character Kevin. As I mentioned before Kevin has 23 different identities within his mind, whilst we don’t get to see all of them (a smart choice), we do get to see more than half a dozen and we as an audience soon learn that this man is very unpredictable. This level of unpredictability is what creates a sense of unnerving tension whenever he is on screen, and it must be said that James McAvoy eats up the scenery in every single scene he features in. Every identity is different from the next and they all remain distinct with different speech patterns, subtle mannerisms and more. The character that has been written required an actor who would trust the material and dive straight into it all with 100 percent commitment and focus. Thankfully this is exactly what James McAvoy has done with this role and it’s clear to see. This is a career best performance for James and one of the most captivating individual performances I’ve seen for quite some time.
With a performance as expressive and vibrant as McAvoy’s it would be hard to match him but this is exactly what Anya Taylor-Joy has accomplished in a completely opposite manner. Anya gave a break out performance in last year’s The Witch (My favourite horror film of 2016 may I add) and here she proves that was no fluke. She plays Casey, the quiet one out of the three kidnapped friends. Even with a surprising lack of dialogue she manages to bring so much depth to the character, and conveys thoughts and emotions through her body language and facial expressions often in pure silence. It’s a subdued performance but a great one for sure, and the film makes us start to question why she is the way she is. Through the use of a couple flashback scenes sprinkled throughout the film we do get a greater understanding of how she became to be the girl she is now.
Shyamalan handled those flashback scenes with pure finesse, never dwelling on the scenes for too long especially at certain key moments where he trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to understand what is going on, whilst he hints at certain things that most directors would show in more detail. The way in which he chose to execute those key moments definitely made them much more effective. He also does well to keep exposition heavy scenes and conversations down to a minimum to a point where it feels natural. Apart from one scene featuring a conference being done through Skype by Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) a psychologist who is a specialist on D.I.D. In this scene she explains the dissociative identity disorder in detail and how it works. This scene felt as if it was only there for the purpose of explaining to the audience about the disorder so nobody feels lost. It could’ve been cut from the film entirely and the majority of audiences would still be able to keep up with it and understand the disorder itself.
I felt the rest of the cast, essentially just Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) did a fine job with what they were given. Claire is the more confident, outgoing type and Marcia is the more visibly frightened in contrast to Casey, the way they attempted to handle the situation they found themselves in is believable and fitting based on how their characters personalities are.
The only aspect of the film that I thought required a bit more work was the pacing. The film clocks in at just under two hours which isn’t too long by any means, but some scenes during the films second act could’ve been trimmed down a little bit just to be make it flow better overall without dragging in the middle. That being said the rest of the film is well paced, as previously stated the first act jumps right into the thick of things and the final act does the same thing. After a suspenseful second act the film builds like a crescendo to a shocking finale where some secrets are revealed and lingering questions get answered. Without spoiling a thing, Shyamalan’s signature twist is present in this films climax but it’s presented in a way which I can’t see many people predicting beforehand. To add to that I do feel it will also go completely over the head of others but what Shyamalan has done with this twist is impressive and worthy of an applause.
Overall, Split is firm evidence to prove any Shyamalan non believers that he has still got the qualities, which made him the popular director he was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Split successfully conjures up some true surprises and in a time where we are getting remake after remake and uninspired sequels, M. Night Shyamalan presents to us a unique psychological thriller boosted by two fantastic performances from both James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy.
(4 Stars out of 5)
Split; Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Opens in UK & US Cinemas January 20th.