After scaling back considerably and returning to his more understated, old-school roots with the low budget outing The Visit – a film that, while divisive, most would agree was a step in the right direction – many people were curious as to what M. Night Shyamalan would be up to next, having regained a marginal amount of goodwill with the film-going public. And as much as this particular reviewer enjoyed The Visit, that film now almost feels like a dress rehearsal for Shyamalan’s latest effort in Split, which is quite frankly an excellent piece of work and by far the director’s best film in over a decade, thus marking the true return to form everyone was hoping for.
For obvious reasons, I’ll try to keep any and all plot details to a minimum, but just to cover the basics: Split opens with three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, & Jessica Sula) being kidnapped right in the middle of a parking lot and being held hostage in an undisclosed location by a man they eventually come to realize suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder, meaning that their captor actually harbors 23 individual personalities within his one body, each one with their own different agendas and interpersonal conflicts both within themselves and with the girls being held captive – this person being simply known as “Kevin” to most people, is played by James McAvoy.
However, time is of the essence in this particular situation, since the girls’ purpose for being there, while ambiguous at first, is soon revealed to have something to do with a dangerous, unknown 24th personality that usually lays dormant, but will reveal itself soon enough. Also in a pivotal role is Betty Buckley (aka the nutty lemonade-sipping old woman from The Happening) as Kevin’s psychiatrist, but once again, the less said about how she factors into the broader narrative of the film, the better. Just take all the tidbits and details I’ve offered you and roll with it.
If from the aforementioned plot description, it sounds like James McAvoy as Kevin has the meatiest role in the film, then you’d be absolutely correct. I’d hate to resort to using a cliche here, but his work in Split is truly a “tour de force” performance, and the role of a lifetime and a half. Not only does he nail the truly unsettling essence of a character like this, but he (along with the carefully crafted screenplay by Shyamalan) is also able to dig down and bring out the true desperation and sadness of a man suffering from such an intense condition, the combination of which ultimately makes Kevin a sympathetic figure.
This culminates in a climactic scene where all 23 personalities seem to be fighting for total control at the same time, and this scene witnessed in a vacuum without any prior context would be enough to convince even the most doubting individuals of James McAvoy’s acting talents. For someone with an acting career that’s only lasted for a little over a decade, it’d be hard to imagine McAvoy matching his work here in terms of sheer energy and versatility anytime soon – and I do mean that in the best possible way. If you had to give only one single reason to send someone to see this film, his performance would be at the top of the list for sure.
Also holding her own in the film is Anya Taylor-Joy (fresh off her breakout year in 2016) as Casey, the more withdrawn and level-headed of the three captives, and the character who emerges as the film’s true protagonist by the end. Sure, James McAvoy’s Kevin is the one with the more clearly identifiable personality disorder, but anyone with at least a formal training in the field of psychology would be able to recognize that Casey is the bearer of some deeply rooted psychological issues of her own, thus making her – in some sort of sick, ironic twist of fate – the perfect match for Kevin in this battle of wills and the only one of the three captives truly capable of empathizing with him on at least a basic level.
Both Casey and Kevin share in common the fact that they have similarly traumatic pasts and unfortunate experiences with abuse in many forms, all of which have shaped them into their current selves; it’s just that one of them learned from their experience to become a stronger, more resilient individual and the other suppressed it so hard for so long that it’s turning them into a *literal* monster. Split really gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of playing up the contrast between the two leads without ever being too forced or obvious about it, and it’s one of the films most impressive qualities.
Among a number of other factors, one of the main things that has separated M. Night Shyamalan from his peers in the past (and if his most recent two films are any indication, still does) within the pulp horror-thriller genres is his manifest sensitivity and empathy within the worlds he’s created, especially towards the characters that populate them. Despite all the external genre-heavy pomp and circumstance, there are still real people caught up in a real situation at the center of Split.
In a move that’s been fairly consistent with a lot of his past work, Shyamalan occasionally has his protagonists portrayed as ambitious, intelligent people who are unfortunately held back by a crippling physical or emotional deterioration which forces them to persevere even harder than the average person would need to; a trait which is equally applicable to both Kevin and Casey in Split. Think of the wheelchair-bound Samuel L Jackson in Unbreakable, or Bryce Dallas Howard’s blind heroine from The Village. But unlike those films where it’s merely a bit component of larger story, that’s the entire main focal point of the themes and subtext of Split. Seemingly ordinary individuals who are living as prisoners in their own skin, working their hardest to overcome their afflictions and join the rest of the world in normalcy. Also, special mention to the makeup effects work on both James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy during the final confrontation, the designs of which really help to visualize the internal conflicts and tensions that’ve been building up over the course of the entire film. That might seem like a vague element to point out, but it’ll make sense once you’ve seen it in context.
There’s no way around it, folks: Split is M Night Shyamalan going back to his vintage roots and a welcome callback to his stronger, more personal works. It does what all the great horror films of the past do – gives us a slick, comfortable outlet to expose and digest our fears by bringing them out into the open and expanding upon them in any number of entertaining ways. But the real twist is how it manages to be all of that and so much more in the end. Hidden inside all the pulpy genre tropes lays a hopeful, profound message about overcoming past traumas and letting it shape you into a stronger, more complete individual. Come for the James McAvoy ham-fest and witnessing another stellar performance from rising star Anya-Taylor Joy, stay for the utterly gobsmacking emotional reveals in the final act and a fun little mid-credits tease. Etc, etc, etc.