M. Night Shyamalan has been a polarizing figure since his introduction to Hollywood with his enigmatic horror thriller, The Sixth Sense. Since then though, his hubris has slowly deteriorated his once promising career, which prior to last years The Visit, was all but an ash heap of wasted talent. The Shamhammer had allowed his aptness for self aggrandizement to destroy him. With complete misses like The Last Airbender and After Earth, it seemed all hope was lost and studios were essentially lighting money on fire.
The connective tissue in all Shyamalan films is the climactic twist that shocks and awes, and his latest Split has one of the biggest twists of all, in that It’s a truly fantastic film. Crawling himself out of the deep dark hole his arrogance placed him in, he has found his footing in simplistic low budget independent thrillers, teaming with horror giants Blumhouse. If The Visit was his reawakening, Split is the summit of his reinvigoration. He’s found himself again and more importantly, he’s having fun, and it shows.
Split follows Kevin (James McAvoy), a man apparently suffering from a rare personality disorder titled Dissociative identity disorder, or DID. The film opens with him kidnapping three girls–Marcia (Jessica Sula), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and the black sheep, Casey (Anya Taylor Joy). He holds them captive in a creepy basement, freshly drywalled, but it’s important to notice that only two cots reside in the room in which they are held. While the girls attempt to gather their surroundings, Kevin makes his way to Dr. Fletcher’s (Betty Buckley) office for an emergency meeting. Here we learn some background on him and his condition by meeting one of his personalities, Barry. When Kevin returns to the girls, he does so dressed in women’s clothes and with an entirely different demeanor. The story continues as the Dr. Fletcher reveals more of our main character’s backstory, as she seems to be the foremost scholar on DID and the potential of her patients. It is revealed that some of Kevin’s personalities believe in an malevolent deity that serves as the “24th” identity. It then becomes a race against time for the girls to escape, before “the beast” is released.
The film carries some grand concepts, but keeps its focus tight, and it’s scope narrow. A bulk of the narrative resides within the basement location where the girls are imprisoned, with only a few glimpses of Kevin in the outside world, and few flashbacks that plague Casey’s psyche. It’s this laser like focus that has eluded Shyamalan for so long, but he seems to have learned his lesson. Tension is key, and Split is brimming with palpable unease throughout it’s run time. Not a moment is wasted on screen and each character brings something substantive to the story. The Shamhammer has elegantly constructed a narrative that is self aware enough to cast a shadow over it’s more outlandish plot points, while relying on performances to drive the film.
At face value this can be misconstrued as mere exploitative psychological horror that preys on the fear of mental illness, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is a study on the lingering effects trauma inflicted on the psyche as a result of abuse. This movie is so much smarter than it’s initial frames would lead you to believe, serving to shock the audience with some blatant misdirect, as the pieces of the puzzle slowly begin to fit together revealing a more haunting depiction of tragedy, brilliantly filtered through the audience perspective.
The film is wholly and completely anchored by its performances. There can not be enough said of McAvoy and his ability to portray nine different personalities seamlessly. He is comical, terrifying, and quietly dissonant as he deftly maneuvers between multiple unique personalities, each with their own defining qualities. The end result is one truly transcendent and transformative rendition that captivates and entertains every second he is on screen. Anya Taylor Joy is impressive, as she has to hold onto her sanity, playing opposite a performance that shifts course virtually every scene. Her vulnerability is what prevents the back and forth between her and McAvoy from crossing into parody. Her fear, and confusion ring true, and she becomes the surrogate for the audience. The rest of the cast does well to chew scenery while trying to not get in the way of our two leads, and successfully so.
This is a quite satisfactory return to form. Serving as a reminder of his former glory, Split is filled with technical mastery and proposes a thrilling experience that is both inventive and highly entertaining. There are absolutely moments of malaise, and even a gratuitous cameo by Shyamalan himself, but the story is able to defeat any notion of perversion. With some brilliantly vibrant performances and a narrative that becomes increasingly intelligent as it goes, Split is absolutely Shyamalan’s best effort since Unbreakable and almost makes you forget his sordid past. Anyone who didn’t think The Visit was a return to form, need look no further than Split to comprehend that the Shamhammer is back and he’s having fun again.
4/5 EPIC BRO