A wholly original concept? Check. Some performances that are both riveting and slightly horrifying at the same time? Check. Camera angles and shot composition that serve to pull you deeper into the world? Check. Really good writing that uses foreshadowing and different subplots to build into a revealing third act? Check. An ending that involves a twist that will confuse some, enthuse others and cause a few to be angry? M. Night Shyamalan is back and, for better or worse, Split is Shyamalan in full form.
How to Discuss a Shyamalan Film?
Looking around the web there seems to be two options when reviewing Split. One, you just decide to say FULL SPOILERS and discuss the film openly. I don’t think a standard review is the place to jump into to full spoiler discussion, so if you haven’t seen Split you will be safe reading this article. The other option seems to be to try and discuss “the twist” without actually discussing the twist, using vague language and constantly hinting at the ending without giving it away. That would be a frustrating read for everyone here and we won’t be doing that today. Instead, let’s review the movie as a whole and leave the spoiler discussion for another time.
The plot of Split sees three teenage girls abducted by a man (James McAvoy) and held hostage in his basement. While the girls are already terrified for their lives, their fear takes another leap when it is revealed that their abductor will switch between 23 different personalities. There is Barry, the fashion designer who is usually in charge. There is Hedwig, a 9-year old boy. There is Patricia, a motherly figure. Then there is Dennis, the personality that acts the most antagonistically when he is charge. The movie is divided between Barry’s therapy sessions with a professional interested in his disorder, and then the horror/thriller elements where the girls are fighting for their lives attempting to escape.
This is a great premise in that it gives opportunity for the movie to shine in a couple areas. First, the writing. Shyamalan, though he has strayed into horrible schlock from time to time, is one of the most creative minds working today. It is great to see him given the opportunity to display what true original screenwriting looks like. The premise is extremely intriguing and it is fun to dive into this “what-if” scenario of this man’s disorder. Throughout the film, we cut back to various flashbacks from both Barry and Casey’s (Anna Taylor-Joy) lives. Though he may not stick the landing, Shyamalan does a great job threading different subplots together, weaving them all to a big finale.
Split’s Central Performance
Secondly, and the movie should receive as much praise as it can get in this area, Split is the James McAvoy show and he is phenomenal here. Split is essentially a demented one-man show you would see on Broadway, and its entire success is built on McAvoy’s performance. Though there are 23 different personalities, we really only spend our time with a handful. I can only marvel at what McAvoy has done here as each personality feels like its own character. Yes, the writing is good, but McAvoy brings it to life. There are scenes in which McAvoy transitions from one personality to the next and you fully buy into what Shyamalan is selling. Not only is it different accents and wardrobes, but something as simple as McAvoy furrowing his brow more with one personality goes a long way to convincing you of this premise.
The combination of Shyamalan, McAvoy and the excellent Anna Taylor-Joy makes Split an incredibly entertaining, if not unsettling, film. The movie succeeds at drawing us in, we are truly curious to learn about this world. That is the best thing I can say about Split. With all of the sequels and adaptations we see, sometimes our movies get a little stale, that is not the case with Split. I loved experiencing a truly original premise and all the performers involved do a great job bringing the screenplay to life. Before giving some final thoughts, we need to make sure one thing is established:
Split is a good movie…
That being said, as with most Shyamalan movies, the ending is going to be the cause for much discussion and will not work for some. I’m not sure I would say it “makes or breaks” the film though. What I wanted to establish with this review is that Split is incredibly well made with a career-best performance from McAvoy, and that makes up about 95% of the movie (thus the positive rating). I will leave my thoughts like this: Split joins Signs, Unbreakable and The Visit in that upper-tier of Shyamalan movies. If it would have stuck the landing a little better, it is possible it would have been my favorite from his filmography. As it is though, contentious ending and all, we have a great film that shows what happens when a creative director is given a chance to be a little weird.
It was 10 years ago The Lady in the Water was released and Shyamalan was in the process of making The Happening. Much like the theme of his movies, Shyamalan’s return to form proves that miracles do happen. The director is back and I can’t wait to see what he does next. Be sure to check out Split as I think some great conversations will come out of a film as creative as this.