Movie Review: “Split” (PG-13)
With the new thriller “Split,” M. Night Shyamalan continues to chip away at getting his mojo back. With his previous movie, the incredibly entertaining “murderous grandparents” opus “The Visit,” the director of “The Sixth Sense” reminded filmgoers why they fell for his work in the first place. While “Split” isn’t as consistently creepy and straight-up entertaining as “The Visit,” a couple of its attributes absolutely make it worth seeing. More on that in a moment.
In “Split,” James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man suffering from disassociative identity disorder. He has 23 personalities, to be more specific. They include Barry, an eccentric man with a fondness for young ladies; Patricia, a prim and proper British woman who likes to be in control; and Hedwig, a beguiling and precocious 8-year old. As a psychiatrist (played by Betty Buckley of “Eight is Enough” fame) attempts to get to the heart of Kevin’s many problems, it turns out that this troubled individual may be beyond saving. Unbeknownst to this psychiatrist, Kevin has kidnapped three teens (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula), and he’s keeping them hostage so that he might offer them up to an as-yet-to-be-revealed 24th personality that Kevin’s various alters refer to as “The Beast.” What follows is a battle of survival as this trio of teens try to outwit a truly cunning (and diabolical) mind.
James McAvoy is all kinds of brilliant here in the kind of showy role that will likely (and justifiably) further his career in a big way. He is, quite simply, a force to be reckoned with in “Split,” and rightfully so since the movie really is about his characters. There are moments when McAvoy certainly hams it up a bit. But a bigger-than-life role calls for a bigger-than-life performance, and the “Filth” star is compelling every step of the way (his crazy Hedwig dance sequence is particularly memorable). In fact, McAvoy is so good here that had this movie come out in mid to late 2016, you might have heard this actor’s name being whispered about on the current awards circuit.
As fantastic as McAvoy is in “Split,” there are other performances worth noting, too. Betty Buckley brings much needed warmth to the proceedings while Anya Taylor-Joy (so great in 2016’s “The Witch”) brings a surprising amount of depth to the table as a broken teen looking to break free of her emotional constraints.
“Split” is really about broken characters — not necessarily in a “Manchester By the Sea” sense, but it is about emotionally scarred individuals looking to make their way through life the only way they know how. In fact, in many ways, this might be Shyamalan’s darkest film (the flashbacks alone rival the darkest moments in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable”). Having said that, the darkness is coupled with a bit of a schlocky B-movie camp sensibility, and this serves the film well for a great deal of its running time.
Shyamalan the director pays homage to the likes of Brian DePalma to strong effect here, and as expected, “Split” is extremely well shot, although it should be noted that the geography of the location where Kevin keeps his prisoners locked up is a bit confusing. Of course, that’s a fairly minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.
While watching “Split,” one can’t help but feel that Shyamalan is completely in his element here. His working relationship with Jason Blum (the thrifty producer behind smaller budgeted fare like “Sinister,” “The Purge,” and the upcoming racially charged gem “Get Out”) feels like a match made in heaven.
Shyamalan the screenwriter does flounder a bit. The script probably could have used a couple of revisions. “Split” does feature a fair share of scenes in which people don’t entirely act in the way you might think a rational person would act under similar circumstances. Furthermore, for all the build-up, the film does end on a bit of an anticlimactic note.
That said, the flaws in “Split” are ultimately trumped by a couple of strong central performances and an end-credits stinger revelation so unexpected and so downright awesome that if you’re a Shyamlan fan in general, you’re likely to walk out of the theater as giddy as I was. I’ll remain cryptic so as to not give away the biggest secret in this picture, but I’ll say that this particular plot development adds a most intriguing layer of complexity to “Split” It’s a layer that suggests Shyamalan is a far more sly and clever world builder than I could have imagined. Here’s hoping that “The Sixth Sense” creator’s next movie is exactly what “Split” leads us all to believe it’s going to be. If it is, then well played Mr. Shyamalan. Well played.