*** out of ****
(for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, and some language)
Released: January 20, 2017
Runtime: 117 minutes
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
He’s baaaaaack. (That sure took long enough.)
After a decade-plus of futility, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan returns to form in the character-based, suspense-thriller roots of his early hits that struck a chord in the national zeitgeist. The trifecta of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs (plus The Village, for some) provoked worthy comparisons to Spielberg, but then embarrassments from The Lady in the Water and The Happening to After Earth made him a Hollywood pariah and box office poison, even a laughing stock.
With Split, ironically, he regains his filmmaking sanity along with his pop cinema mojo. While it lacks the deep emotional pathos of his best work, this unsettling, scary spine-tingler (that stays just this side of an R) is exactly the kind of inspired low scale/high concept idea that made Shyamalan a wunderkind. He nails it, complete with his patented (and mysterious) metaphysical layer.
The premise is simple, tight, and controlled, reminiscent of the structure that last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane played so effectively. James McAvoy stars as Kevin, a disturbed man with 23 distinct personalities who kidnaps and imprisons three teenage girls in an industrial catacomb. Outmatched physically and environmentally, the young women – led by Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey, a quiet and guarded loner – must psychologically outwit Kevin if they’ve any hope for survival.
A side narrative that’s integral to the main plot is Kevin’s relationship with psychiatric specialist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Kevin is her top case study in ongoing research focused on the possibilities of multiple personalities, questioning if they are a mental disorder or, perhaps, an evolutionary step in the maximization of human potential.
This all serves as a showcase for McAvoy, who grounds the role(s) with a necessary conviction but then amps it up with a stylized yet nuanced kick that suits the genre. It’s the most entertaining turn of his career and arguably the most impressive, not to mention wide-ranging by design (and, within that, the 9-year-old Hedwig is the most compelling personality, “etcetera”). McAvoy relishes every moment.
Anya Taylor-Joy, a breakout talent whose star is on fast ascent following 2016’s The Witch, provides a perfectly metered counterpoint to McAvoy. Compared to the other two girls, who are understandably frantic, Taylor-Joy’s Casey approaches their captor with the patience and cunning of a hunter (a mindset established in Shyamalan’s well-conceived flashbacks). The dramatic thrust becomes rooted in this cat-and-mouse game, as do the stakes.
Shyamalan remains a confident craftsman but has regained his discipline, even milking lengthy conversations for chilling tension. His style, however, isn’t quite as ambitious as diehards of his early work would hope. Sure, it’s thick with atmosphere and nicely shot, but he relies less on lengthy slow-building takes, opts for a more traditional editorial back-and-forth structure, and employs extreme close-ups more than one would expect.
The score (no longer by James Newton Howard) is a bit more modern in style, too, and by creating scenarios for his nubile actresses to become half-dressed, it feels like Shyamalan is exploiting their sexuality (even if it is an old genre trope) due to their age and victimization. Nevertheless, all of these gripes are nitpicks by a fan of auteurism, not crippling shortcomings.
Split is a satisfying companion to Shyamalan’s most celebrated films (though not quite as rewatchable), but it doesn’t end with the kind of twist that Shyamalan devotees will no doubt be looking for. Instead, he tags on a moment that I’ll vaguely describe as a very nice touch…especially if it leads to something more.