M. Night Shyamalan is one of those all-too-fascinating filmmakers, whose every movie becomes somewhat of an event, based solely on the question “Will it be any good?” If we’re honest with ourselves, if Scorsese, Spielberg, or Tarantino release a new film of theirs, there’s a very good chance that it will at least be somewhat enjoyable and/or entertaining. Not the case with Shyamalan. As it seems now, a new endeavor from this cinematic anomaly has the strong potential to be one of the best or worst films of the year.
So, when “Split” was first announced, I became intrigued, of course. Shyamalan’s last attempt (the comedy-horror film “The Visit”) was both extremely funny and extremely scary. But that film was almost a parody of the director’s own ridiculous high-concept works. However, the acclaim must have lifted the man’s spirits, not to mention his ability, because I am very pleased to say that “Split” is quite possibly Shyamalan’s best film since “The Sixth Sense.” This story of a man named Kevin (outstandingly portrayed by James McAvoy) who is torn apart by 23 different personalities is not only intriguing, not only thrilling, not only scary, but downright disturbing.
In this film, Anya-Taylor Joy portrays a distant, alienated girl named Casey, who, after a birthday party, is kidnapped by a mysterious, bespectacled man. Casey and two other girls are taken to a mysterious location, and locked in a plain room with only a bathroom and a single, creepily inviting flower. Then, after a few hours, they are visited by a composed British woman named Patricia, then a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig. But there’s a catch: The kidnapper, Patricia, and Hedwig? They’re all the same person. The unpredictable nature of this disorder (and of each of the personalities) allows Shyamalan to ratchet up the tension and suspense until a final white-knuckle act. And, yes, a twist ending. But no spoilers here, only incredible enthusiasm, the Oh-My-God-That-Was-Amazing! Reaction.
McAvoy is an absolute miracle in this film. It would be so easy to overdo this performance, but he does his damnedest, and it reaps the best possible profits. He is truly Oscar-worthy in this role, and he is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie before. He so clearly defines every personality, that you start to see each as an entirely separate person. A performance this good usually once in a career, but let’s hope that McAvoy has many more still left in him.
But Kevin’s facade is not the only mystery being unraveled throughout these perplexing two hours. We are also given quite a few flashbacks to Casey’s seemingly innocuous childhood. Viewers may puzzle at the purpose of these peeks behind the curtain. They may even perceive these segments to be diffusing the tension built up by the events in the bunker, but they come of terrifying importance and realization. One may be able to catch what is happening, but Shyamalan, never being one for subtlety, makes sure that everybody gets the point, and it will have you bewildered in a combination of fear and disgust.
Speaking of diffusion of tension, there is another plot running through this film that actually does take away some of that important suspense. It shows Kevin’s therapist (Betty Buckley) and her meetings with the confused man, trying too to makes an iota of sense out of his predicament. This too has a purpose, and is infinitely interesting, but it also makes the film seem choppy and poorly assembled at times. The moments are strangely placed, and it seems pretty random.
As a person who can reasonably enjoy ridiculous movies, “Split” could probably benefit from some subtlety. Its themes are in your face, its dark humor weirdly conceived, and its undertones would be better described as overtones. But then again, the film is so wonderfully realized from its darkly mysterious cinematography to the pulse-pounding score to the stunning emotional performances, so what if “Split” isn’t subtle? No matter what, I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t be unaffected. And I couldn’t stop talking about it. The Shyamalan from the cover of that early 2000’s TIME magazine cover is back. And to answer that question from the top of the page: “Yes. It is.”
Final Grade: B+