Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anna Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Plot: Three girls are taken prisoner by a deranged man (McAvoy) who shares 23 personalities, and is preparing for the arrival of the destructive 24th entity.
Split further proves the theory that M. Night Shyamalan is definitely at his best when his movies are played low-key. While his blockbuster efforts have been dour affairs, so set upon that infamous twist ending Shyamalan is always determined to hammer in, they have been, frankly, awful pieces of cinema, a shoddy representation of his skills. And as the classic Sixth Sense proves, somewhere inside Shyamalan is the skill-set required to make a decent piece of cinema. Split is a true return to form for the director and, while it doesn’t have the air of a classic that Sixth Sense does, features a thrilling and entertaining journey. It almost makes his other films twice as bad, knowing that he is capable of scripts like these.
Again, this is largely because Shyamalan keeps his set-pieces confined and is forced to slow everything down to get a feature’s worth of story out of the premise. You can tell that he is slightly uncomfortable with the notion, as Split has twice as fast a pace as the usual hostage thriller movie. In a few beats, three teenage girls have been developed, kidnapped and thrown into a dark, dingy room by a bald psychopath. The rest of the story is kept, for the most part, in that single set, as the girls try to figure out why they are here. It means that rather than impress with lavish set-pieces, which he perhaps got carried away with doing with the likes of The Last Airbender or After Earth, he has to use smaller examples of his directional prowess. The set-dressing is phenomenal, McAvoy’s character’s home a living, breathing extension of his torn soul. Each of the 23 personalities have their own toothbrush. One personality’s, a 9 year old boy, Hedwig, has a room filled with drawings that scream personality. You can pause each frame and just take in the universe the director has built for his story here. The writing is strong too. The brilliant thing about M. Night Shyamalan’s choice of villain is that his multiple personalities keep each scene so diverse, so varied, that you forget how little the scenery changes. We can have yet another dialogue scene between Anna Taylor-Joy and McAvoy in that same cell, but with a totally different personality. Even when you have figured out where the story is going (it is less about what is going to happen, but how it is going to happen), these scenes still thrill, as McAvoy’s character morphs constantly and is pushed into new and exciting places. People have grumbled somewhat about Shyamalan’s glorifying of split personality disorders, but this never really strikes the viewer as a fair attack on the story. For one, Shyamalan is hardly the first storyteller to use this mental illness as a basis for a bad guy’s motivations, but mainly, it is quickly established that this is not a common variation of the affliction, but something supernatural. McAvoy’s personalities aren’t just a change in characteristics, but a change in physicality. One personality suffers diabetes, the others are immune. While the story works as a fascinating character piece, essentially a Hannibal style breaking down of a psychotic personality, it never forgets its primary job is to service as a horror. While it has large chunks of the narrative focused on story-telling, when Shyamalan embraces horror, as he has done often in the past, he excels. The finale is truly skin-crawling, sold with McAvoy’s commitment as an actor, and some stomach-churning visuals. The ending battle in a maintenance tunnel will stay with the audience for quite some time.
But Shyamalan’s casting of McAvoy almost outshines his own direction. In fact, perhaps the real reason Split is Shyamalan’s best work yet, is because his traits are pushed back, in favour for viewing this as a McAvoy fim instead. The actor is so magnetic that he distracts from whose work we are actually watching. Anna Taylor-Joy, too, must be slightly miffed that she turns in the best performance of her early career yet and McAvoy is still the only actor anyone talks about, in regards to this movie. However, McAvoy earns this with what has to be a true tour-de-force performance. Take any one of the personalities on show here and McAvoy delivers a performance that can fuel a movie by itself. Dennis is the OCD hard man, doing what he believes is best for Kevin (the original personality, now little more than a host body), while repressing dark, sexual desires. Patricia is a matriarchal female personality that is obsessed with controlling those around her. Each one is worth a film getting to the bottom of what makes them tick. However, here, McAvoy is asked to play 23 different characters (okay, we only properly meet five of them, with cameos from a handful of the others), morphing continuously between each other. A brilliant scene sees McAvoy change from the kind-hearted gay fashion designer, Barry, to the hard-faced Dennis in an instant. The performance is so beautifully measured we can tell the exact moment Barry becomes Dennis. It is a rare instant when an actor can be so great at his job that the rest of the story is forced to the back-burner just to watch some good old-fashioned acting. McAvoy clearly has fun too, getting to play a nine year old boy exploring his first kiss and trying to impress the female hostages with his dance moves. There are quite a few hostage movies out there now, the cheap single set style appealing to independent film-makers, and while M. Night’s supernatural creation is world’s away from them in terms of tone, it is clearly great casting that sets his story apart from the competition.
Final Verdict: James McAvoy’s performance deserves a standing ovation, but praise must also be given to M. Night Shyamalan for proving there is still creativity up his sleeve.