For years M. Night Shyamalan’s followers have been wondering what on earth has been going on with the director. Such promise through earlier works of “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” seemed to have been drowned through the deluge of dull, sci-fi and fantasy works of “After Earth” and “The Last Airbender.” It’s been so disheartening to watch happen, but all the more euphoric to see the man with signature twists return to full strength with a brilliantly tense pot-boiler with a sophomore central performance.
James McAvoy juggles nine roles in one as Kevin, who suffers dissociative identity disorder, with 23 personalities within his body. One of these personalities, Dennis, kidnaps three young girls from a birthday party, locking them away and telling them “they” (his identities) have taken them to present them to the 24th identity, “The Beast” which will be coming for them.
Shyamalan set out in the horror-thriller genre and for several years seemed to have his feet grounded in the right place. The notorious twist endings played well with his screenplay, dark ideas and rich designs. With 2015’s The Visit, he seemed back on the right track, but it was never that involving, convincing as a black comedy, or horror, hampered by its found-footage format, which is now so dry not even the best of minds can enliven it. Split feels like a passion project of his with which he has given everything he has, fully embracing the disorder, respecting it – to an extent – and putting a lot on his leading cast’s shoulders.
His direction embraces Hitchcockian routes in a very contained setting, a lot of corner shots in corridors under artificial light with atmospheric lighting and simplistic set design. It’s a stripped out setting with immediate and overall focus on McAvoy and leading woman Anya Taylor-Joy. There’s a staggering amount of close-ups to get the fine details of their facial expressions, and this is where the film would fall apart if the actors weren’t convincing. No issue of that here though.
James McAvoy dives head over heels into his multiple roles and is absolutely glorious. Going from one unsmiling, sinister kidnapper, to an authoritarian British woman, to a nine-year-old boy, this could have been a disaster for him if it didn’t work. Luckily, his commitment and Shyamalan’s direction do the film many, many favors. It’s all about his smaller expressions, his movement and voice work. There’s several stand out scenes which are masterfully handled, one close-up head shot shows his transition between two personalities, and you see every little change in expression and body language resulting in a full, real-time transformation that’s totally believable. Other moments include his nine-year-old Hedwig’s personality performing a hilarious but equally unsettling electro-robotic dance to Kanye West, and the eloquent Patricia trying to be consoling to the girls and making them feel at home.
It’s in these scenes where Shyamalan’s writing also delivers. In previous cases, predominantly The Visit, he’s tried unsuccessfully to balance the dark humor and horror. It’s no mean feat but here there are spikes of punchy black comedy that work because they fit in with the personalities and McAvoy’s skills.
Anya Taylor-Joy is just as impressive, propelled by her breakout role in Robert Eggers’ deeply unnerving “The Witch” last year. Her character is the polar opposite to Kevin – inward, stoic and cold; revelations later on explain why she’s so strong willed in the face of terror, which is neatly tied in with her relationship to Kevin’s personalities. Again with the many facial close-ups, Shyamalan is demanding her to be strong, and this pressure brings out her gusto.
The finale ups the ante considerably, and things do become a little overblown, and while Shyamalan clearly respects the condition and wants to portray it well, certain actions and progress with Kevin’s behavior don’t quite gel with reality. That being said, as a piece of cinema, it rounds off with a tense, thumping grandeur that’s well directed and brilliantly performed.
“Split” is not Shyamalan’s best work, but marks a welcome return to his sinister roots and masterfully blends the thrills and the nasty laughs. If it’s commentary on the disorder is questionable towards the end, it still serves as a solid, punchy, well-acted pot-boiler which takes a lot of risks with significant pay-off.