By Ryen Thomas
January 21, 2017
Once heralded as “the next Spielberg” Director, M. Night Shyamalan walks back into our lives with the psych thriller, Split. But does he deliver a hit like this earlier films?
My relationship with the M. Night movie has been rocky. By the end of Sixth Sense it felt like love at first sight. Unbreakable, my favorite entry of his, sealed the deal and made me want to have a lifelong commitment. Signs was a fun ride, despite some problems I had with the climax, but who cared, love was in the air. Then there was The Village, with the James Newton Howard score that I wore out on repeat. However, it was The Village that sadly provided me with my first unflattering glimpse of the man behind the curtain. A man who knew how to create a mind-bender in the likes that we haven’t seen since Hitchcock, but at worst, allowed his thematic premise to get in the way of storytelling and create a contrived and convoluted product.
By Lady in the Water, I was still involved with the M. Night movie, but started to question if things were really working out. I became the significant other hanging on while the partner promised to be good and not hurt me again. Then came The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. By this point, Shyamalan is sleeping on the couch. Leading up to The Visit, I was bitter, but to my surprise, I enjoyed it. However, I’d been too burned to call the movie a comeback for Shyamalan. But with Split…it’s safe to say that the notorious director gets his groove back!
Here we have the thrilling nightmare of three teenage girls held captive by Kevin, one of the most thought provoking characters in one of his films, yet. James McAvoy effortlessly plays Kevin as a young man haunted by his past and dissociative identity disorder. He never comes off like a caricature and through him we see that he has at least twenty-three personalities to his name. Four of them take the lead: Barry, a fashionista with a heavy New York accent; Hedwig, a playful nine-year old boy; Dennis, a quietly sinister, obsessive compulsive control freak; and Patricia, a regal old lady who thinks she knows it all.
Each persona is introduced via the point of view of the kidnapped girls; when the girls feel amused, freaked out or terrified of them, we feel the same. It’s easy to believe that Kevin himself believes he’s each personality thanks to McAvoy delivering a truthful performance with detailed body language and an intense, yet vulnerable, gaze all working together to provide a guy spiralling into madness. It’s evident McAvoy is having loads of fun with the role of a lifetime. My guess is that X-Men fans will never look at him as Professor X the same way again.
Though McAvoy steals every scene he’s in, the film’s protagonist, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the captive girls, holds down the fort with an honest portrayal as an outsider dealing with deep and psychological trauma of her own. It’s how she deals that pushes her to survive and manipulate her circumstance.
Betty Buckley plays Kevin’s doctor, Karen Fletcher. Fletcher is strong, discerning and through her we learn more about the complexity Kevin and the ‘friends” inside his head. There are moments with her, however, where M. Night once again allows his lofty premise to get in the way of the storytelling. Flether’s scenes stop the narrative flow, with M. Night having Fletcher come off like the white coat wearing doctor at the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho who conveniently appears to explain all the clinical stuff (most likely for viewer’s benefit). But overall, Split works to quickly get back on track and serve up plenty of the jumps, chase, sadism, dark humor and the kind of shadowy moments a fan would expect from a movie in this genre.
Like The Visit, Split has more horror than Shyamalan’s earlier films and I wonder how much of the more twisted elements can be credited to his successful partnership with the genre masters at Blumhouse. However there’s plenty to remind us of what we love about Shyamalan’s work: His masterfully staged scenes, unsettling mood and pacing, drama mixed with sincerity, scenes shot on location in Philly and of course the twist.
Wait..is there a twist?
Star Rating: 4 out of 5