Split is a psychological horror starring James McAvoy as Kevin, a man who plays host to 23 distinct identities, who kidnaps a trio of girls, including troubled teen Casey Cook (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy) for reasons unknown. Meanwhile, his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley. You may remember her as the lady who Mark Wahlberg unconvincingly reassures he’s not going to murder…) attempts to reach the heart of his condition, before the malevolent personalities within him do something unforgivable…
I will admit it; it has been a while since I have enjoyed an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Lady in the Water was a pretentious exercise in a director’s ego, The Happening is fascinatingly terrible, and The Last Airbender is lifeless high budget tosh.
And yet, fifteen years ago, M. Night Shyamalan was one of the most promising directors around, with a series of great movies under his belt, including Unbreakable and his legendary debut The Sixth Sense. He was the master of the narrative misdirect, and was an excellent visual storyteller. To me what typified his movies was not simply surprise twist endings, but was him masking one genre in the trappings of another.
That’s when he was best; The Sixth Sense was a tragedy masquerading as a horror, Unbreakable a psychological drama which clothes the origin story of a superhero, Signs a movie about God and faith, told through the lens of an alien invasion movie. I find his best twists make you re-evaluate the entire movie, making a second viewing all the more enjoyable. Signs gets a lot of flak for the water thing, but I don’t think that negates the rest of the film, which is a masterclass in slow-building tension and pitch perfect jump scares, which genuinely terrified me as a kid.
Split is a return to classic Shyamalan, the Shyamalan of my formative years, very much in the same vein as his early films. McAvoy’s performance is a tour de force, effortlessly slipping from one character to the next. What could have been goofy comes across as both unsettling and fascinating. He is so good, you can tell in one scene when one personality is impersonating another, simply by a slight shift in the facial expression. You can tell the actor loves the opportunity to just go wild with all these characters. By the end, we only saw a fraction of his personas, and I was eager to see more.
The character of Casey Cook was another interesting addition, and I liked Anya’s haunted portrayal of a broken but cunning figure. The strength of her performance here has convinced me to watch her debut movie, The Witch. The other captured girls’ characters were not so strong; their dialogue felt quite stilted, as if Shyamalan, in an effort to avert horror tropes, falls into a trap of being too self-conscious. I am half-tempted to say them being weak characters in a crisis is a deliberate choice on the movie’s part, in light of later events.
There has been criticism online I have read about Split for its unrealistic portrayal of dissociative identity disorder (DID). Now this would be very problematic, if this movie proclaimed Kevin only had DID. However, there is more going on. Doctor Fletcher thinks Kevin has DID, but the truth is stranger. You wouldn’t criticise The Sixth Sense for its unrealistic portrayal of hallucination, after all…
You will notice that I am trying very hard to skirt around any spoilers for this movie. It would almost be too much of a spoiler to tell you if the movie has a “twist” ending. I don’t really consider it a twist, but it was a literally jaw dropping reveal. Seldom do I yelp “holy shit” in a crowded theatre, but I did here, and I regret nothing.
All I can say is I have been waiting almost fifteen years but finally, Shyamalan is back, and I hope he can maintain this level of quality. I cannot wait for what he has in store for us next.
Hmm, feels weird saying that. Maybe I should go watch Wahlberg negotiate with a potted plant again to manage my expectations?