Posted: Friday, January 20, 2017 – 1:31 PM
By Adam Sherman
For the nearly two decades of his career, M. Night Shyamalan has gone from “the next Spielberg” to one of the biggest laughingstocks in Hollywood. The promise shown in films like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable ultimately wound up being squandered with films such as Lady in the Water and After Earth.
However, over the course of the new tens, Shyamalan has begun to show signs of regaining that squandered talent. Wayward Pines – the first season at least – was a massive success both critically and ratings-wise, and The Visit was considered a generally positive film in general.
And thus, we come to Split. Does this story about a man with 23 (soon to be 24) split personalities place M. Night Shyamalan back on the right track.
Absolutely… with some caveats.
Split focuses on three girls – Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – who get kidnapped in broad daylight by Kevin (James McAvoy). Trapped in an unknown basement, the girls must contend with Kevin’s split personalities before they are all dead.
There’s a bit of a subplot about Kevin’s meetings with his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), as well as about the nature of those with dissociative identity disorder. Unfortunately, the thread doesn’t seem to go far, and the end of the film suggests something different about Kevin’s personalities.
However, when the film focuses on being a “trapped with the monster” thriller, Shyamalan is at the top of his game. Every scene is absolutely dripping with tension – even in the more comedic moments. The sets and cinematography only serve to reinforce this, constantly giving the viewer the same sense of claustrophobia and barely-restrained panic the girls experience.
And yet it is McAvoy himself who proves the best part of the film. He is on full display, managing to effectively demonstrate Kevin’s various personalities with nothing but body language, facial tics,and voice. At times, McAvoy’s performance comes close to elevating Kevin to the same horror icon status as Freddy Kruger or Pinhead. In short, were this movie released earlier, McAvoy would be in the running for awards season.
The rest of the film is a bit more mixed. While the three actresses do well enough with what they are given, what their characters go through in the film can sometimes come off as less “scary creepy” and more “exploitative creepy”. Even Anya Taylor-Joy’s character’s trauma ultimately makes her come off more as someone “broken” rather than fulfilling a character arc.
Ultimately, while the film can come off as problematic at times, it still triumphs thanks to Shyamalan’s direction, the atmosphere, and McAvoy’s amazing performance.
P.S. Old-school Shyamalan fans – get ready for a treat at the very end. Ranking: 7.5 out of 10