To call M. Night Shyamalan “inconsistent” would be a compliment. The Indian-American filmmaker hasn’t provided a film of credible merit for the past fourteen years, so any release brandishing his name is a good reason to retreat. Particularly when his latest film arrives in January; unequivocally the worst theatrical month on the calendar. But fear not, because Split is easily his most assured work since Signs (2002), and although baggy, occasionally frustrating, and largely preposterous, is still an enjoyable Friday night flick.
James McAvoy’s psychologically warped protagonist channels some 23 unique personalities, as the core host of his body – Kevin – suffers with dissociative identity disorder (DID), causing an array of different characters to “take the light” at any particular moment. Among the many beings which reside in the fringes of his mind are “Hedwig”, a nine-year-old with a preteen mentality; “Patricia”, a high-brow and softly spoken woman; “Barry”, an educated yet flamboyant fashionista; and “Dennis”, a predatory and militant man with severe obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
This particular personality kidnaps three teenage girls – best friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and social recluse Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) – holding them captive in an underground cellar. Together the girls must establish a route to freedom as they interact with the many conflicting characters, and must evade what has come to be known only as “The Beast”: a fabled 24th personality whose mere name strikes fear in all involved.
An awful lot of critics and viewers alike have labelled Split as Shyamalan’s return to form, and this author is inclined to agree. There are a number of errors throughout which ensure the film becomes little more than a twisty, turny romp, but it does showcase that same creative flair that we relished back in the days of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). Shyamalan – who also pens the screenplay here – does however fall into his familiar trap with the inflation of drama; forever trying to take things just one step further every time.
We as viewers establish a conflicted and complex relationship with McAvoy’s many alter-egos, and each provide a layer to help build the portrait of Kevin and his suffering, but as we enter the bombastic (and ludicrously silly) climax, so much hard work is poorly undone for the sake of a memorable set piece. That isn’t to say the finale isn’t “fun” because it is, but there is little argument to say it doesn’t underwhelm the bigger picture. One will not say anything further to avoid any risk of spoilers, but for this writer, the actions tainted the characterisation, and indeed film.
Like pretty much every Shyamalan film, Split is too long for its own good. Shave maybe twenty – most certainly ten – minutes from the near two hour runtime, and the pacing would be far superior. Tension, paranoia, and downright dread is established so early on, and then we hang in the weight of it for pretty much the remainder of the runtime. Despite the film being light-footed and zippy, with the roulette of personas just waiting to spin, it becomes sluggish in the downtime, and that’s always the most important area for character definition. Two victims (no pun intended) of this are Lu Richardson and Sula, who are pretty much there because they are attractive. Despite being trapped and held against their will, we learn virtually nothing else about them which is a shame.
However this cannot be said for Taylor-Joy’s Casey. It is extremely easy to praise McAvoy’s alarming and multilayered work – and rightly so, because he is fantastic – but it is Taylor-Joy who anchors what really is a pretty silly movie. She gives it emotional clout; she gives it texture. Her exchanges with “Hedwig” are easily the dialogue highlights, as she carefully underpins how he thinks and acts, using his youthful age and heightened sexuality to her advantage. She equally thrives in the more muscular action scenes, helping the anchary to at least culminate in something profound.
Equally impressive is the opening sequence, which in just two finite minutes, renders an atmosphere with immaculate prowess. The craft of this scene is built with measured movement from Shyamalan’s lens, and peppered with inane background dialogue which becomes little more than a hum as the sound of breathing and quiet panic escalates. It is a truly brilliant moment, and perhaps the most assured introduction to a Blumhouse-produced thriller ever. Split also benefits from well-exercised set design, which although restrained, feels characterised. The many façades wallowing in the recesses of Kevin’s brain are trapped, just like the girls within their gloomy, oppressive prison.
Shyamalan’s latest is very much a mixed bag, but an undeniably enjoyable one nonetheless. It initially builds its world with brutal, nauseating colour, and from here on remains a thrill ride with enough bark, bite, and surprise to keep you satisfied.
Split is out now on wide release in UK cinemas.