Let the Shyamalanaissance commence!
As great as The Visit was, it was hard to call it a “return to form” for writer/director, M. Night Shyamalan. Not just because he exploring the found footage format, something he’s never done before, but it felt like an experiment that just happened to come together fairly well in the end. The same precision and meticulousness from his previous work – bad ones included – was nowhere to be found, so it’s hard to gauge how much he is able to keep the same groove going for his next project.
In comes Split, a psychological thriller where three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are kidnapped by a strange man named Kevin (James McAvoy). And the problems don’t end there. Turns out Kevin has 23 different personalities swirling around in that brain of his. So…yeah, it’s not a great situation for anyone.
Split finds Shyamalan moving away from found footage and going back to traditional filmmaking, but at the same time, it operates on the same weird wavelength as The Visit. It is thriller dealing with dark and heavy undercurrents that takes advantage of some of Shyamalan’s awkward idiosyncrasies by playing them up for intentional humor, and also being really, really exploitative at the same time. Split is basically exploiting mental illness, specifically dissociative identity disorder. There’s no two ways about it, that is what the film is doing, but that’s not to say the film doesn’t play around with it in a way that is effective, or deal with it through a sympathetic eye.
First and foremost, the big reason the film is noteworthy is because of James McAvoy’s bold and unhinged performance. The film is his playground, and he has been set loose by Shyamalan to go as weird and crazy as he desires. It is truly a sight to behold. It’s almost too bad none of the other performances in the film are quite on that level. Not to say everyone is subpar. In fact, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley (who plays Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher) are both really good in the film. They also get to interact with Kevin the most, so having that dynamic helps in that regard, but they are both undeniably strong.
Per usual, Shyamalan throws in some fun twists and surprises, one in particular at the very end will undoubtedly make a certain fandom go nuts. However, the twists in this aren’t really the most interesting things about the film. What I found compelling was how it’s a story about how people are tied and defined by their traumas, how it shapes them, and how it brings a connection to other people who may have had similar experiences. It’s an idea that takes a while as it boils under the surface for the entire film, especially with the use of flashbacks, before finally coming through in the climax, in which it clicks in a scene where Kevin confronts Casey. It’s a fascinating moment because it is subversive, it leaves you thinking about everything that happened before, and it shows that even when being super exploitative/potentially offensive, Shyamalan always operates on empathy more than anything else.
There’s really not a whole lot to say about Split. It certainly has a lot of interesting things going for it, and it almost all comes together at the end. Getting into some of those details would require discussing spoilers, and I’d rather leave that for you to discover. Trust me, this is one film that just begs to be experienced with an unsuspecting crowd. The film is tight, weird, funny, twisted, awkward, and intense. From a directing standpoint, Shyamalan is easily at his most refined in years, and the crown jewel of the entire thing is McAvoy’s incredible performance. It might still be too early to say we have a full blown comeback in our hands, but I am wholeheartedly excited to see where Shyamalan goes from here. 80/100