Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Disturbing Thematic Content and Behavior, Violence and some Language
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula & Brad William Henke
If nothing else, M. Night Shyamalan is an interesting filmmaker. He rose to fame with THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS. After those three hits, M. Night fell into a downward spiral with THE VILLAGE, LADY IN THE WATER, THE HAPPENING, and THE LAST AIRBENDER. In 2015, Shyamalan made an unexpected comeback with quirky found footage flick THE VISIT and was then green-lit for a mysterious horror-thriller called SPLIT. That film has finally reached theaters and it’s pleasantly surprising to say that Shyamalan is back with one of his best efforts to date. SPLIT is a twisted Hitchcockian thriller with lots of suspense, smart writing and one of the most amazing acting feats in quite some time.
On the way home from a birthday party, teenage friends Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are suddenly abducted. Waking in a small cell-like room, the three captives discover that their kidnapper is the mentally unhinged Kevin (James McAvoy). Kevin has severe dissociative identity disorder to a degree where 23 personalities inhabit his body. It appears that the three girls have been captured for a very special (foreboding) purpose and the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, Kevin’s psychiatrist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to suspect that her patient might be doing something drastic…and a fearsome 24th personality begins to emerge.
SPLIT feels like Shyamalan’s most mature, grown-up thriller to date. He treats the film’s PSYCHO-esque subject matter with attention to detail, genuine emotion/sympathy and never goes into any potentially exploitative areas. Walking into this movie, I was expecting to see 24 different personalities that the girls would have to contend with and each one would be crazy in some way. However, this film is much more restrained and clever than that. The script carefully unfolds in a way that, at first, seems disjointed and then digs its hooks into the viewer. Exposition isn’t thrown out in dialogue-heavy scenes, but is hinted at in sparse conversations and little details that become bigger over time.
SPLIT is easily the darkest Shyamalan movie to date and keeps ramping up its intensity with each passing minute. The final third had me on the edge of my seat and the suspense is further elevated by masterfully atmospheric cinematography. The film’s visuals are gorgeous and the set design of Kevin’s lair is appropriately creepy. Flashbacks are used to flesh out the main character (of the three teenage captives) and these come to a head in a deeply disturbing, heartbreaking conclusion that I wasn’t expecting. Like I said, SPLIT is a smart, disturbing movie. The more I think about this film, the more I like it.
As far as acting is concerned, Anya Joy-Taylor is proving herself to be a talented young regular in modern horror. I haven’t seen MORGAN yet, but her performance was solid in THE WITCH and she’s even better in this film as teenage loner Casey. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula perform well as the two other teenage captives and the script attempts to not portray them simply as victims. Coming off an embarrassingly bad performance in THE HAPPENING, Betty Buckley shines in her second Shyamalan outing as a sympathetic psychiatrist with radical theories about dissociative identity disorder.
The big show-stealer is James McAvoy as Kevin, Barry, Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig and a slew of other personalities that inhabit Kevin’s body. McAvoy is something to behold as he switches his mannerisms, character and voice at the drop of a dime. McAvoy’s multiple characters are threatening, entrancing and comical. You simply have to see his performance to believe it. There are scenes where multiple personalities appear at the same time and you can tell the exact moment when a new personality inhabits Kevin’s body. This “special effect” is purely made from McAvoy’s acting abilities is unnerving and amazing to look at. This is the best performance (or performances) of James McAvoy’s impressive career thus far.
SPLIT isn’t free of minor flaws though. One flashback to Kevin’s childhood feels slightly out-of-place, a few lines of dialogue feel stilted, and the final minutes may arguably be too far-fetched. However, this film surprised the hell out of me. It’s easily Shyamalan’s second-best outing, next to THE SIXTH SENSE, and shows a remarkable growth for him as director/writer. If you want a thriller that’s gorgeous to look at, toys with the viewer’s expectations like a cat with a mouse, and has one of most memorable psychos in recent memory, then definitely check out SPLIT!