M. Night Shyamalan is on a career upswing, and Split is somewhat of a return to an earlier form for the director of the standout fright film The Sixth Sense and the superhero-influenced Unbreakable. Mr. Shyamalan was, and still is, unfortunately typecast as a director known for surprising, shocking twist endings. This makes watching his films somewhat of a difficult and frustrating ordeal because of the need to overanalyze every aspect. Still, minus a few films, Shyamalan has crafted a career that indulges in the art of the mystery, and with Split, the writer/director proves that he can still build an effectively suspenseful film that keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next.
Split is about a man (James McAvoy) of many names due to the many personalities that fight for the spotlight in his mind. The first personality we are introduced to is the cleanliness-obsessed Dennis, who invades a car filled with three teenage girls, drugs them, and kidnaps them. Dennis is just one of 23 other personalities, or “alters,” as the film describes them. Once in captivity, the three girls witness the depths of this man’s personality disorder, and the dangerous designs he has in store for them.
Split doesn’t waste much time getting into the grit of the situation. It takes less than ten minutes to place the three girls in captivity and introduce the antagonist. Shyamalan establishes the situation and then takes a step back to let the personalities of all the characters settle in. The director has always done a particularly great job of building characters and providing a very genuine and authentic feel to how they communicate with each other. The three girls are interesting and compose a good dynamic.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the outsider of the three girls. She is abnormally calm and particularly watchful when Dennis comes into the room to explain the situation of their captivity. Through a series of flashbacks, we see young Casey on a hunting trip with her father and uncle and begin to realize how she connects with this situation. Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), the feisty and proactive one, and Marcia (Jessica Sula), the nervous and fearful one, are also provided with interesting moments that help define their characters. Together, these three young women compose an interesting survivalist group.
The aspect of being a victim isn’t only reflected in the primary story, but also in the backstories of the main protagonist and antagonist. Trauma has changed these individuals and influences their decisions. While Shyamalan utilizes these aspects to offer some interesting concepts in the composition of the characters—specifically within the multiple personalities of McAvoy’s character—there are a few moments when they take on an uglier perspective through the camera’s eye. These young women, who are utilized together to challenge the common tropes associated with women in genre films, are often displayed through the camera as mere objects in very little clothing. Together they are stronger than when they are eventually separated, as the films stalls a bit once this occurs.
McAvoy elevates this film so much. His performance of numerous characters with distinctive qualities is exceptional, with one especially fantastic scene displaying McAvoy’s great range. Taylor-Joy is building quite a catalog of performances, and here she is a great balance to McAvoy’s indulgence but she is also provided with moments that display the strength she owns.
Misdirection is one of the most powerful tools in Shyamalan’s writing arsenal, and he utilizes it with great success in this film. It’s as if he is toying with assumptions and perceptions that have influenced films throughout his entire career. That’s probably why the film feels most in line with his early career work. What transpires over the course of Split is suspenseful, even if the mystery falls apart as more aspects are introduced. Still, in the hands of Shyamalan, you can't help but remain engaged until the final frame.
Movie Score: 3.5/5