Recent years have not been very kind to M. Night Shyamalan, a film maker that was once a titan in the world of suspense thrillers. Since his 2008 bomb, The Happening, things just seemed to be getting worse as time went on. Last year, Shyamalan made a film called The Visit, which I have yet to see but I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard some positive things about it. Now, I can really say without a doubt that Shyamalan is back on course with his newest film, Split. I was hesitant when I first saw the trailer. It looked cool, but trailers can be deceiving. When I left the theater, I was overjoyed that Split was everything I wanted it to be, but it also exceeded those expectations.
After a small birthday celebration, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends are kidnapped by a seemingly random man named Dennis (James McAvoy). They wake up in a room in an undisclosed location and soon learn that Dennis is not what he first appeared to be. Dennis is also a woman named Patricia who is also a kid named Hedwig who is also over 20 other people. Having suffered with such an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder for so long, he’s gotten quite close with his doctor, Karen (Betty Buckley), who also has theories that these many personalities can give people with this disorder an evolutionary leg up over other people. Back at the girl’s make shift prison, Casey starts to work at better understanding all of this guy’s personalities, but when Hedwig mentions that the Beast is coming for all of them, she begins to formulate new ideas to escape before this terror makes itself known.
I really had such high hopes for this movie. I wanted Shyamalan to show that he still has it in him to make a really kick ass thriller movie, and that’s exactly what I got with Split. I knew I was in for a treat when the credit sequence started. The black background and twisted lettering were great, but what really hooked me was the ominous music that sent a chill down my spine the same way the Signs theme did the first time I saw that movie. The music by West Dylan Thordson is in no way overbearing and it seems to relish in its subtlety. It creeps in whenever the occasion really calls for it which is the mark of a great score. This combined with the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis makes for a great combination. Gioulakis previously worked as cinematographer on It Follows, which was a fantastic looking film, and that same kind of wispy camera movement and confident head on framing makes the same kind of impact in Split.
The real star of the show here, though, is James McAvoy. McAvoy gives the best performance of his entire career and possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen in a very long time. You know you’re watching a great performance when you no longer see the actor playing the role, but become so convinced that the actor is no longer there and just the character. McAvoy succeeds in doing that in this movie, but what makes it even more impressive is that he makes me believe that a whole lot of characters are real and not being played for a camera. He completely transforms himself into these roles, and each personality has a different stance or walk or way of speaking that makes them feel completely separate from the others. One scene in particular has McAvoy switching between people, and that to me is one of the most impressive parts of the movie. I also have to give credit to Anya Taylor-Joy, who showed that her performance in The Witch wasn’t a fluke and that she is able to maintain a sincere performance despite insanity happening all around her.
While this is truly an incredible movie, there is something I have to get out of the way in terms of negativity. Shyamalan is no stranger to drawn out scenes of exposition, and Split is a major offender. Betty Buckley does a good job playing Dr. Karen, but a lot of her scenes do just exist to explain to the audience what’s going on with one of the personalities or her strange theory that links the whole movie together. To be fair, this is a strange story and exposition is necessary, but there’s so much of it in this movie that it can get kind of distracting. I can definitely forgive this however, because most of the movie is spot on. On the opposite side of the long exposition scenes, there are scenes of visual dread and fear that will be seared into my mind for a long time. There’s one particular moment during a chase towards the end of the movie that is one of the freakiest things I’ve seen in a long time.
Split is a really strong outing by M. Night Shyamalan, and I’m hoping this marks a grand return for someone who has always succeeded in freaking me out and guessing all the way to the end of his movies. This is a really strange film filled with ideas and clues to dig away at to find meaning. It’s also a film that showcases the talents of its actors and behind the camera artists, with James McAvoy really stealing the show with his one of a kind performance. This is a truly suspenseful thrill ride with an ending that will knock your socks off. I highly recommend it.
Final Grade: A