Fan Contributor Managing Editor Nick Nunziata reviews M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split. Starring James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy the film tells the story of the abduction of three young women by a man with multiple personalities. Showcasing the filmmaker’s skill at drawing attention as well as a magnificent leading performance, the film looks to further establish Shyamalan’s brand. The film also features an unexpected bonus that will please fans in a really special way.
M. Night Shyamalan is back with another bite-sized thriller on the heels of his surprisingly effective The Visit. This time in Split, the auteur tackles the idea of dissociative identity disorder and its ability to make a kidnapping that much more terrifying by way of the multiple personalities interacting with the captives. A trio of teenagers is abducted by a man and put into a subterranean cell with no motive and soon realize that the man who took them is only the tip of the iceberg. Twenty-four distinct personalities live inside him and when each one “steps into the light” a different set of possibilities open up. Almost a year has passed since 10 Cloverfield Lane showed us one way of looking at a capture scenario and luckily Shyamalan has taken a different tack than that terrific film.
A trio of teenagers is abducted by a man and put into a subterranean cell with no motive and soon realize that the man who took them is only the tip of the iceberg. Twenty-four distinct personalities live inside him and when each one “steps into the light” a different set of possibilities open up. Almost a year has passed since 10 Cloverfield Lane showed us one way of looking at a capture scenario and luckily Shyamalan has taken a different tack than that terrific film.
Split is a thriller but one that plays with a very specific set of rules that may cause audiences to be skeptical, but which makes perfect sense once the final reveal is delivered. The high concept requires the viewer to accept that someone with this condition would be able to juggle those varying personalities but also take on different physical manifestations based upon whom was in the spotlight at a given time. It creates many complexities for chills and even a few laughs but most importantly it gives James McAvoy a place to really deliver a performance, or rather series of performances, that elevate the material to a much higher level. Normally M. Night Shyamalan is the star of his films, but this is a McAvoy vehicle through and through. The actor immerses himself in a role that allows for so many accents, nuances, and physicalities that it helps smooth over some of the rough spots in the story.
There’s a ton of exposition here, primarily by way of Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher. McAvoy’s Kevin is her patient and she’s the audience’s conduit into his world. While it helps to have a handful of scenes away from the grimy dungeon where the girls are being kept, these scenes seem to serve more as filler than propulsion. It does allow the film’s star to shine, but it also takes a lot of the mystique away from his condition. It also allows the director to shoehorn in his customary cameo. Where the film is most effective is when the girls are interacting with their captor. There’s a fun sense of uncertainty to it all as if there’s no net. Kevin or one of his many personalities are a delicious wild card and as he alludes to a final personality known as “The Beast”, the story gets even more intriguing.
The end result is a fun diversion of a film that justifies its existence in its final moments. As is the case with many of the director’s films there is a twist and for once it’s the kind of twist that is more of a gift than anything else, especially to fans of the filmmaker’s earlier work. Where the film fails is in fully escalating the tension to a level that makes it a must-see. While it’s obvious that Anya Taylor-Joy of The Witch and Morgan fame is the main character, the other two captives are one-dimensional and an afterthought. Joy is quite good here, though saddled with a sexual abuse backstory that fills the margins with unresolved darkness. The flashbacks to the character’s past certainly inform her state of mind but it never delivers closure. The film is worth a look for McAvoy’s great work, some nice moments of terror, and the context Split takes within Shyamalan’s universe. Something tells me this movie will have newfound value in the not too distant future.