Years ago, I read a joke online declaring M. Night Shyamalan to be the greatest artist of all time. The punchline of the joke went that the writer/director, who shot to fame at the start of his career with a series of films all boasting jaw-dropping plot twists, was actually using his career as a meta gag: With things like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he made us all think he was one of the most talented filmmakers in Hollywood. Then BAM! PLOT TWIST! Turns out he’s actually a hack who gave us pieces of celluloid effluent like The Village, The Happening and The Last Airbender.
But what if Shyamalan was playing the long game? What if he had one more surprise in his seemingly voluminous twist-storing sleeves? Well that surprise comes in the triumphant guise of Split, a magnificent return to form for the beleaguered filmmaker.
Split follows three young teenage girls – broody loner Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and popular pretty girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) – who are drugged and kidnapped from a party in broad daylight by a mysterious man named Dennis (James McAvoy). Waking in a dank underground prison, with no reason given as to why they were taken, the girls soon make a shocking discovery about their captor.
“Dennis” is merely one of the 23 different personalities within Kevin, a sufferer of dissociative identity disorder, with each personality having their own distinct traits. One minute Kevin is the obsessive compulsive Dennis, then he’s the decadent Patricia, then the lisping 9-year old Hedwig. But not all 23 personalities are in agreement with the kidnapping. Or with Dennis and Patricia’s zealous claims that there’s actually a 24th identity: the impossibly monstrous Beast.
Multiple personalities have been a Hollywood screenwriting go-to for about as long as Tinseltown has been producing labyrinthine thrillers. But unlike most of those, the discovery of Kevin’s various personas in Split is not the grand third act prestige flourish here. Instead it acts as the initial catalyst for a story that then goes on to examines themes of emotional trauma and hidden strengths. All while keeping your rear end perched on the smallest sliver of your seat edge in terror.
Most of this seat real estate sequestering comes from McAvoy, who puts in a brilliant turn as Kevin’s various personalities. McAvoy doesn’t make use of makeup or fancy costume quick-changes as obvious identity visual aids here, but instead the young Scottish actor rather does all the thespian heavy lifting through just changes in posture, speech patterns, mannerisms, etc. And he sells it incredibly well with a performance that is every bit as magnetic as it is manic. Watching him essentially working against himself, going from stomach churningly terrifying to innocently goofy with lightning quick fluidity, is a nightmarish treat.
While his co-stars may not be called on to perform the same level of thespian gymnastics as McAvoy, they don’t ever disappoint either. Veteran actress Betty Buckley as the doctor studying Kevin’s condition, and Izzie Coffey as a 5-year-old Casey are further standouts, but its a solid effort from all involved.
And Shyamalan directs them all with a level of filmmaking polish that should make you forget some of his past fumbles. Tension is ramped up masterfully in scenes to spine-contorting levels through the use of tight editing and inventive, but not flashingly distracting cinematography. A discordant, jarring score from composer West Dylan Thordson is also very effective in setting an unsettling tone.
All those good things being said, Shyamalan still relies on some of his old tricks, so expect people to always be peering through cracks, and characters info dumping along the way. Shyamalan has also always managed to find ways to stitch moments of fated catharsis into his movies, as characters’ past experiences inform their actions in the present. In his previous features these moments have sometimes felt oafishly heavy-handed (“Swing away, Merrill… Swing away!”), and admittedly it threatens to do the same here.
But I can forgive Shyamalan for including some of these trademark hangups, as he also manages to inject the script with a level of B-grade gonzo theatrics that most filmmakers would struggle to rein in, but which just seems to be the perfect snug fit for him. The end result is a movie that is part single location pot boiler, part redemption tale, part psychological thriller, and part… something else. Something that I can’t go into here as it involves a moment in the movie that is undoubtedly one of my favourite cinematic experiences of recent times. It’s ballsy and brash and a true jaw-dropper and I’m not saying another word about it.
What I will say though is that I know that not everybody will be as enamoured with this film as I was. Besides for its few inherent flaws, if you can’t look past the film’s almost comically exaggerated representation of DID you will definitely take umbrage here. Required suspension of disbelief is of course nothing new to a Shyamalan film though. And Split is very much a Shymalan film through and through. But – PLOT TWIST! – for the first time in a long time, that’s actually a very good thing.