I’ve been going to the movies at a breakneck pace lately, trying to see all the probable Oscar contenders while they are still in the theater and easily accessible. This has been a more enjoyable Oscar death race than in previous years as, for the most part, I have really enjoyed everything that I’ve seen and while a lot of the movies are sad, they are not quite as soul-crushing as they have been in the past. I’ve done so well that on Saturday I decided to give myself a break and go to see a movie that has no chance at an Oscar, just for the fun of it. A palate cleanser, if you will, from all the very serious movies that I’ve been consuming. I decided to see Split, since the trailer had intrigued me and, because it was an M. Night Shyamalan film, before any spoilers became common knowledge. Because if M. Knight Shyamalan is known for one thing, it’s for his love of movie twists.
Shyamalan has had an uneven career – he put himself on the map with The Sixth Sense and followed that up with the solid Unbreakable. But after that, things got a lot more erratic; I personally like Signs, but that isn’t a universally held opinion, and The Village was something of a disappointment. People really hated Lady in the Water and The Happening and it’s been kind of downhill since. I don’t think I even know anyone who saw The Last Airbender. But I’m always rooting for Shyamalan to pull it together, even if his reliance on big reveals kind of takes the fun out of the big reveal. When you know a plot twist is coming, you spend a lot of time analyzing the movie trying to figure out what it’s going to be. And if you do figure out the surprise early, people get annoyed; I figured out the big secret of The Sixth Sense about ten minutes into the movie, much to the annoyance of everyone who was watching with me. They had all already seen it and I’d spend a year dodging any info about the movie until I finally saw it as a rental (this was back in 1999 when the rental was on VHS and you had to wait a really long time for movies to finally come out for home viewership). Everyone had been so excited to see my reaction upon learning the surprise, so my quick deduction of the situation took all the air out of the room. I still liked the movie just fine, even knowing the twist.
So I went into Spilt hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst; James McAvoy has been doing a lot of press for this movie, which can be a red flag, especially when the film is being released in January. And while Split is definitely not a perfect movie, I was relieved to find that Shyamalan put together a thrilling horror movie that mostly worked, thanks to very strong performances from McAvoy. The bar is set pretty low for what constitutes a Shyamalan success, but Split is a marked improvement from his recent offerings. I don’t know if this will lead to a Shyamalan renaissance or not, but it was a reminder of what he can do as a director. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that this is a Shyamalan movie without a twist – or at least, without a twist as you’ve come to expect them.
Split is the story three young women, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) who are abducted after a birthday party. They are held captive by Kevin Crumb (McAvoy) who suffers with dissociative identity disorder and has 23 distinct personalities. These personalities take turn “in the light” controlling his behavior and his physiology changes with each identity. One of the personalities (Dennis) has kidnapped the girls to sacrifice them to “The Beast.” The young women try to figure out how to survive and how to navigate the many different personalities that they meet. Betty Buckley also stars as Kevin’s therapist, Dr. Fletcher.
This movie really rides or dies on McAvoy’s performance and he does a really impressive job of basically playing a handful of different characters (we don’t meet all the personalities). McAvoy finds the essence of each of these personalities and makes them feel like distinct and full realized people apart from them happening to share the same body. When Kevin is “Dennis”, “Patricia,” “Hedwig” and the other various personalities, McAvoy really does become a different character all together. He has to portray women, a nine year old boy, and various men. For Split to work, McAvoy needs to have the range to pull this off and he does so flawlessly. He’s also uniformly creepy, which helps add to the thriller atmosphere that Shyamalan is trying to cultivate. With a less capable actor, Split would be a disaster. McAvoy easily elevates Split and gives Shyamalan a lot to work with. Anna Taylor-Joy also deserves her recognition in her role as Casey. I was unfamiliar with her work prior to this movie, but she made an impression and has to do a lot of her own emotional heavy-lifting for the story to work.
The less I say about the details of the plot the better, but I’d argue that Split has a pretty strong first and second act, but doesn’t quite pull of the third act. This isn’t a film that cares a lot about closure or wrapping things up in a nice little bow, and while I normally have no issue with that, it isn’t executed well enough in Split for it to be satisfying or not feel a little messy. But what everyone will be talking about after seeing this movie is the Easter egg in the post credit scene. It occurs right after the film ends, so no need to stay in the theater for a long time, and it introduces an interesting concept. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but it definitely piqued my interest. If you aren’t sure what’s going on with the Easter egg, this will get you up to speed.
Split in an enjoyable enough movie that, while flawed, is elevated by the hard work that James McAvoy does in the film. This is a good M. Night Shyamalan movie, which may not exactly be considered high praise for those who have forgotten what Shyamalan is occasionally capable of. Split is a creepy little film that doesn’t quite stick the landing, but that was still entertaining. Fans of M. Night Shyamalan will be relieved to something of a return to form and will be very excited of the potential of what this film represents. This was a nice little break from my Oscar death race, though my enjoyment of it overall was probably moderately impacted by the fact that I saw it in the middle of watching so many stronger movies. If hearing that Shyamalan is attached to a project usually keeps you away, Split is a step in the right direction for redeeming his image. Shyamalan owes James McAvoy big-time for that. He should at least send him a muffin basket.
Split is currently showing nationwide.