M. Night Shyamalan, master of the twisty high-concept thriller, seemed to have lost his way for a while there. But a little more than a year since reinventing himself with the found footage thriller The Visit, the Philly filmmaker returns with a movie that’s likely to re-endear himself to the fans who’ve been unsatisfied with his post-Unbreakable work.
Split starts with teenager Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) attending a party where she clearly was only invited due to pity. Without a ride home, the father of another classmate agrees to drive Casey back, but what she and the two other girls (Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) don’t realize is that this papa isn’t driving their car. He’s been replaced by Kevin (James McAvoy), a dangerous man who abducts them and then locks the girls in his basement, where they soon learn that their kidnapper is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). He has 23 distinct personalities to be exact.
While at a glance, Split might begin somewhat like last year’s abduction thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, it soon veers off into far more “Shyamalan-esque” territory. We start to learn more about Kevin and his personalities through his sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who thinks that his more “unstable” personas, i.e. Dennis and Patricia, might be coming to the forefront. Through this period, the film also flashes back to Casey’s youth when she’s deer hunting with her father and uncle, and we learn more about why she has such a steely nature when faced with such adversity.
Casey also shows the most sympathy for Kevin and his various personalities, or at least the ones he allows her to see, including Patricia, his more feminine side who empathizes with the girls’ situation more than the meticulously clean freak Dennis. Dr. Fletcher mainly deals with Barry, a talented fashion designer, having banned Dennis and even Patricia from the sessions. Casey is especially taken by Hedwig, as Kevin regresses to his nine-year-old self, although they each tease of something more dangerous arriving. Eventually.
Kevin has successfully compartmentalized these different sides of himself into their own personalities, each with their own attire and mannerism, which is why more than anything, the film makes a great platform to display the many talents of the underrated McAvoy, who proves that he can deliver quite a range of eclectic emotions when given a decent role. From the effeminate Barry to the nine-year-old Hedwig—who has a penchant for mean dance routines—McAvoy is so endlessly entertaining in this role that your own reactions are likely to be similar to the abducted young women’s perpetual state of shock.
Anya Taylor-Joy gives an equally compelling performance as a character who has been damaged in her past, perhaps as much as Kevin, and she plays well off McAvoy. The same can be said about stage legend Betty Buckley, who allows everything that Dr. Fletcher says about Kevin’s DID to be believable. And giving any sort of weight behind this movie’s science certainly helps the film’s veracity. Similarly, Shyamalan has always proven himself to be good with characters and dialogue, and both skills are on full display here, even with some of the smaller supporting roles. In fact, this may be his best screenplay in 10 or more years.
Still, there are things that certainly might make you scratch your head, especially as the last act gets a little out of hand in terms of keeping track of what is happening, or who is in control of Kevin’s body at any given time. That ends up leaving more questions than answers, but you’ll want to make sure to stay through the end credits for a very welcome surprise for long-time Shyamalan fans.
Split opens nationwide on Friday, Jan. 20.