‘Split’ Entertains and Divides in Equal Measure


Director M. Night Shyamalan’s Split is an ambitious and entertaining genre experiment with stellar performances from its leads.

It’s been thirteen years since I last enjoyed an M. Night Shyamalan film. (A few considered 2015’s “old people are frightening” feature, The Visit, to be a return to form but I couldn’t stand it.) After years of cinematic misfires, the man best regarded for left field twists returns with Split, a genre picture that’s fascinating, audacious and just kooky enough to be a lot of fun.

Three young girls are abducted after a birthday party by a mysterious man (James McAvoy). The girls are told they’re “sacred food” for an unknown beast and soon realize the man has multiple dissociative personalities.

“Multiple personality disorder” has been a favorite Hollywood disease since Joanne Woodward won an Oscar in 1958 for The Three Faces of Eve. Doctors have doubted the existence of multiple personality disorder and Shyamalan does little to explore its inner science. Instead he uses it as a pretext for a return to ’80s genre cinema. Things start quickly with Casey, our loner heroine. She’s pale, with lank brown hair not unlike The Ring’s Samara. Her invitation to the birthday party where she’s abducted is called a “pity invite,” making the series of events she ends up in even crueler.

Shyamalan enjoys working in isolation. His characters are all located in Philadelphia, the cast is limited to a few key players, etc. Split’s sandbox is even smaller, with the majority of events relegated to the subterranean basement the girls are stuck in. As the narrative progresses, the compositions become more claustrophobic, with the girls broken down and separated. Casey, already alone, is forced to rely on herself and becomes the film’s final girl. Similar to 10 Cloverfield Lane’s Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Casey has seen true horror before ending up in Kevin’s basement and it is only through her ingenuity and ability to assess the situation with a clear, analytical mind that she can succeed.

After a phenomenal debut in The Witch, Anya Taylor-Joy finds another character to inhabit. Casey is similar to her Witch character Thomasin; both take their victimhood into their own hands. Taylor-Joy’s expressive face says a lot, even in moments where she’s passively sitting down and staring you can tell she’s figuring things out. Her moments with McAvoy, particularly when he’s playing the 9-year-old personality of Hedwig are funny, frightening and thrilling as can be. Shyamalan does throw a few too many MacGuffins here, particularly a molestation parallel between Casey and Kevin. The logic implies a twist not unlike 2003’s Identity, but ultimately is a taste too exploitative, as if the script needs to break Casey utterly. Shyamalan wants to engage in discussing the cycle of abuse, but because it’s in service of keeping the audience guessing the twist it never comes off as anything we should be thinking deeper about.

Image via Universal Pictures

What’s remarkable is how fully Shyamalan utilizes the screentime. At just under two hours this is as lean as the best steak, with zero filler. The girls are quickly abducted and the audience fills in the blanks. We may not know Ms. Patricia’s and Dennis’ plan – the two alters “in control” of Kevin – but we’re more than aware that nothing good ever comes with the “girls in the basement” plot.

Like the aforementioned 10 Cloverfield Lane the female captives are aware of the world outside the confines of the cinematic frame. Claire (The Edge of Seventeen’s Haley Lu Richardson) becomes distraught at the fact the group doesn’t fight Kevin off when he first appears. Upset, she declares their inability to act “victim sh*t,” second-guessing herself and falling onto common criticisms lobbed at assaulted women. Fear of rape lasts a couple seconds but is negated when Ms. Patricia kindly declares the girls are “sacred” and “will not be touched.”

Taylor-Joy, Richardson and Jessica Sula are all amazing. The high school dynamics between the three are never clearly explicated but evident in how Claire and Sula’s Marcia hold hands or stand near each other; they’re best friends to Casey’s lonely outcast.

It’s frustrating that though McAvoy is the colorful character, and the closest thing passing for a “protagonist,” this is really Taylor-Joy’s film. Women outnumber the men in this movie – factoring in Kevin’s sensitive psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) – and you probably wouldn’t know it from the ads.

We need to talk about Kevin, or about James McAvoy as Kevin and the people living inside his head. (I don’t mean Joy and Sadness.) Touted as having 23 unique personalities, Split gives James McAvoy one of his heavier (and showier) performances to date. As the cool Ms. Patricia, the hulking Dennis and the adorable Hedwig, McAvoy changes every facet of his personality. His face and bald head – no Professor X here – act as a blank canvas. When he’s playing an alter named Barry, but is accused of using that personality to mask that he’s really Dennis, it’s a nuanced performance that’s boggle the mind. He’s simultaneously acting like three different people in the moment! The final scene sees all the “alters” try to come through at once for a fantastic combination of vocal and facial performance that’s enthralling to witness.

Since this is a Shyamalan movie you’re coming up with twist ideas from the outset. Are Casey and Kevin the same person? Are Casey’s flashbacks something Kevin knows about? (I will say the twists I came up with sounded better than the real one, but that’s my opinion.) Strangely enough, Split plays things so straight I almost believed the twist was there wasn’t any, which would have been Shyamalan’s best trick. The “twist” boils down to one scene that either dazzles you or makes you think Shyamalan is the cockiest director out there. Considering what he’s referencing, I can’t say I enjoyed it because I don’t like the reference. The final scene could be excised completely and the film would be fantastic on its own. Presented with the finale I was disappointed.

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Regardless of the twist, Split is the best film M. Night Shyamalan has come up with in years! Suspenseful and thrilling, the actors do so much to make this a great throwback to ’80s genre pictures.