Synopsis: Three girls are kidnapped by a man with a diagnosed 23 distinct personalities, and must try and escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th. (Source)
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Shyamalan is back! Split is an unabashed return to form for director M. Night Shyamalan, a film that finds him confident and at his darkest. Right from the start, a sense of unease settles deep into our subconscious, with Shyamalan constructing a heady psychological thriller that showcases talent both behind and off the screen. James McAvoy delivers the character(s) of a lifetime, playing a man literally at war with himself, while Anya Taylor-Joy commands the screen to give her archetypal character some real heft. After slumming it for too long in the blockbuster arena, Shyamalan seems to have refocused and found his niche with this small film, which offers no escape and makes for an incredibly satisfying nail-biter.
Following her birthday party, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) find themselves offering a ride to fellow classmate, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – the latter is the black sheep of their art class, dark, tortured and the token pity invite. Before they realize it, the three are kidnapped by a mystery man and awaken in a small cellar, unaware of where they are or why they were taken. Soon enough, it becomes clear that their abductor, Kevin, (James McAvoy) is the subject of severe Dissociative Identity Disorder, and there are 23 personalities raging inside of him, each with their own agenda. As the girls plot their escape, they befriend a few of Kevin’s more empathetic identities, while the more malevolent of Kevin’s personalities prepare the girls for something or someone called The Beast.
Make no mistake, Shyamalan’s got once juicy premise on his hands, and its his ability to wring so much from so little that keeps us hooked. The director seems to be invigorated by his limitations, reducing his pawns to merely a handful and restricting his locations to just two – the girls’ cellar and the psychiatrist’s office where Kevin seeks solace from a Dr. Karen Fletcher. In alternating between sessions and encounters with Kevin’s numerous identities, Shyamalan finds ways to subvert expectation, playing upon genre tropes and skillfully peeling back layers of his characters while introducing twisted reveals. The tension never lets up, slowly coming to a boil until the film’s third act, which ratchets everything up to unbearable levels and pays everything off in a way that’s emotional and cathartic. The larger themes here deal with abuse, both psychological and physical, and while some will argue about the sensitivity of Shyamalan’s approach, the indisputable fact is that he does in fact leave us with haunting ideas that go just beyond surface.
Even with Shyamalan’s skill behind the camera, it’s the performances, especially a fractured James McAvoy that are the real stars. As Kevin and 22 other personalities, McAvoy sinks his teeth into the role of a lifetime. From scene to scene, we’re getting to see him create new characters in the most fascinating ways. His range goes from finite subtlety to night-and-day transformations, and we’re always mesmerized by what transpires. McAvoy can be innocent and shy one moment, but ruthless or stoic the next. Taking things further, Shyamalan gives Kevin’s personalities an intriguing camaraderie, creating cliques between some of them and varying points of view to accent his physical changes. Holding her own, Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Casey, somewhat of a kindred spirit to Kevin. She has her own backstory, revealed through flashbacks, and it’s a tragic, truly haunting setup that informs her every move. Taylor-Joy has a gripping presence, and creates someone we truly fear and care for.
There’s a lot more that can be said about Split, but the less, the better. This is the type of film that’s better if you go along with its rollercoaster of madness, and it really pays off. What I can say, is that Shyamalan’s flair for visual showmanship and narrative trickery are on point, amounting to an experience that holds us tight, shocking and delighting in equal measure. If you loved Shyamalan’s early films, this one rewards you for sticking around in more ways than one – even if you’re just a casual moviegoer, you’re bound to get sucked into this gloriously fractured web of intrigue.