I have not liked an M. Night Shyamalan movie since The Village and that came out 13 years ago. Since then, Shyamalan has made a string of awful, degrading movies. His most recent movie, The Visit, had an interesting concept (like all of his movies), but nothing stuck in the overall scheme of things. And I never made it past 15 minutes into some of his other recent movies (Devil, After Earth), because I knew I was in for another headache. Shyamalan has been in my dog house for a while now, but when the previews for Split first appeared, I was initially curious. Was Shyamalan onto something? Was he finally back? As it turns out, absolutely yes, is the answer to both of these questions. Split is an expertly-crafted psychological horror movie and a return to form for Shyamalan, whose twistingly-good storytelling was sorely missed.
While the mental divisions of those with dissociative identity disorder have long fascinated and eluded science, it is believed that some can also manifest unique physical attributes for each personality, a cognitive and physiological prism within a single being. Though Kevin has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher, there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey, Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him – as well as everyone around him – as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.
Some people might find themselves disappointed with Split, as previews have hinted that something horrifying lurks in the story. While Split does not have many jump scares or thrills, it still works so well due to the psychological factors its main characters deal with – both in the present day and in flashback sequences that are more than just subplot fillers adding to the movie’s runtime. The results are horrifying and, if you’re like me, just might send chills down your spine. This is why people like me love Shyamalan’s old work; you’re left thinking about everything you just witnessed and asking “What of that?” to the subtly-hinted stuff in the movie long after it’s over.
Split’s ever-changing character dynamics with its deranged antagonist are more than entertaining, as we wonder which of his 23 personalities will next pop up with every new scene. You might not jump out of your seat when any of these wide-ranging personalities appear; but Shyamalan keeps the anxiety level at 90% throughout the course of the movie with all of the antagonist’s disturbing attributes–compliments of his mental illness. As the story for Split progresses, we are presented with questions on the limitless boundaries of the human mind and whether the brain can fully expand upon all of the possibilities that make us whole. Is it frightening to think we could “unlock” something within ourselves to reach our full potential? You betcha.
At the heart of Shyamalan’s spine-tingling Split is James McAvoy, who is excellent as the antagonist, Kevin, dealing with dissociative identity disorder. Weaving in and out of the unique personalities that embody him, McAvoy brings something cunning and creepy to everyone who comes out of Kevin. Sure, some of them will draw laughs, but that merely shows just how troublesome McAvoy’s character really is. Kevin, as a character, could easily have been annoying or awful had just about any other actor played him; but McAvoy transitions easily from character to character as his troubled, complex Kevin deals with a severe illness. And honestly, I think this is McAvoy’s best performance to date (and he’s already had so many at the age of 37).
Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Casey Cook, the main outsider among the three girls kidnapped by Kevin, is almost as good as McAvoy. Coming hot on the heels of her memorable performance in last year’s eerily great The Witch, Taylor-Joy continues to impress here. While Split mainly centers around three girls trying to escape Kevin’s windowless room, we’re given backstory to help explain Casey’s traumatic past, which she demonstrates in present day with her lucidity, deviating from others, and not communicating with them. Another solid performance in Split comes from Betty Buckley (Carrie), who plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher. Thanks to a sharp script from Shyamalan, Buckley is able to express her insight and concerns during sessions with Kevin that show us what we might fear if things go wrong. And of course, what kind of psychological horror movie would it be if things didn’t go wrong?
Movies released in January are typically films that studios dump because they know aren’t very promising, but that is not the case with Split. An indelible antagonist mixed in with a pack of other great characters and a sharp script make for a sinisterly twisted story. Split is a broodingly impressive distorted psychological horror movie and the first standout movie of 2017. I’ve been hard on Shyamalan for years, but I’m so glad he’s back with Split. It feels like one of his older movies that I fell in love with growing up (Unbreakable, Sixth Sense).
And if one big surprise you won’t see coming in this movie is any indication of what M. Night Shyamalan might do next, then I have three words for you: Bring. It. On.