With each new film, director M Night Shyamalan is slowly climbing his way back into the fold of competent filmmaking/storytelling. A place he hasn’t been since ”The Sixth Sense.”
His last picture, “The Visit” was a feverish fairytale mockumentary that blended horror and comedy quite well, and even managed to enliven the mostly stale “found footage horror” gimmick. It was one of the year’s biggest surprises. His most recent film “Split” is an entirely different beast—a complex, deeply unsettling kidnapping horror film with an unexpected dose of Sci fi. It’s expertly crafted, full of twists and turns, difficult to watch at times (some of the subject matter is extremely dark and icky) but never unwatchable thanks to its tense and unpredictable structure.
“The Visit” is more fun-- an effective back-to-basics horror comedy, while “Split” is more ambitious and harder to pin down. However, Shyamalan also overthinks things in the latter film, especially during the last third (pulling one too many rugs out from under you) resulting in a slightly muddled finale.
“Split” gets going quickly. Three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are abducted by a mysterious man named Kevin (James McAvoy) and kept in an underground bunker for unknown purposes. It turns out that Kevin suffers from split personality disorder and has twenty-three distinct personalities trapped within him. Some of them are harmless (like a nine year old kid) while others are more sinister (an strict British lady named Patricia). Meanwhile, on the outside, we see interactions between “Kevin” and his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).
The craftsmanship in “Split” is top notch. The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis manages to be both kinetic, his camera navigating the tight creepy corridors of the bunker with frantic ease, and static— the crooked camera angles and reoccurring shots through keyholes and door cracks create a claustrophobic sensation. And the editing by Luke Franco Ciarrocchi is jarring and paranoid without being disorienting or rendering the action incoherent. Meanwhile, Shyamalan’s direction is meticulous and patient, creating an atmosphere of gradual and impending dread.
McAvoy gives a difficult, multifaceted performance. His “Kevin” can be menacing and sweet, calculating and erratic as his various personalities jockey for attention. While his multiple personalities aren’t three-dimensional characters, each one is distinctive enough to leave a memorable impression. They don’t blend together. McAvoy pulls you into his character’s traumatized, complex psyche without giving you full access. There’s plenty we don’t know, which keeps us on our toes. Meanwhile, up and comer Taylor-Joy is also great, playing a clever and resourceful heroine suffering from her own psychological damage. Casey is resilient and cunning with an undercurrent of emotional fragility. Taylor-Joy’s performance only gets stronger the more we learn about Casey and her background.
“Split” contains some very dark and disturbing subject matter, mostly related to Casey’s troubled background. Occasionally, I felt icky and slumped down in my seat in discomfort. At the same time, the film contains its fair share of humor—off beat jokes, black humor, horror/thriller moments that are outright cheesy. This combination of horror and comedy doesn’t always jell, and sometimes I felt uneasy about laughing at the film’s humor. That being said, the comedy never completely undermines the disturbing subject matter or makes light of it. Shymalan shows thoughtfulness and restraint.
The big third act turn (you can’t have a Shymalan picture without one) involving a “twenty fourth personality” is ridiculous to say the least and the science/psychology behind it is equally ridiculous. Though it’s conveyed with a straight face and Shymalan at least tries to explain how it could work in this universe (the seeds are planted during the therapist scenes). In other words, it doesn’t feel like it was pulled out of thin air and dropped on you unexpectedly for the sake of a twist; there’s at least some development.
My main issue with “Split” has to do with the second twist, one final stinger during the last scenes. Without spoiling, it just doesn't feel appropriate for this particular film. It’s a rather drastic and goofy narrative pivot that comes too late and therefore feels unnecessary. The “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” nature of the last scene somewhat cheapens the film overall. I think Shymalan got too clever for his own good during the writing process.
I have other reservations regarding the film’s last third. There are some holes in logic (concerning the true location of the bunker) and Shymalan loses track of the film’s geography; the layout of the bunker becoming slightly confusing. But overall, like “The Visit,” “Split” is a step in the right direction for Shymalan and shows how great a horror filmmaker he can be.