A comeback is an oddly undesirable thing, suggesting a sense of destitution or digression that must be rebounded from. Unfortunately, such was the case for M. Night Shyamalan, a director whose once promising prowess for all things thrilling took a terrible turn somewhere between the laughable The Happening and the abysmal The Last Airbender. However, honing himself with smaller budgets as he never really had to do before, he has made an incredible comeback, first with 2015’s The Visit, but more prominently and succinctly this year with Split. A stunning look into the mind of someone with dissociative identity disorder, Split features a masterful script written by Shyamalan coupled with what has to be one of the best performances I have ever seen, much less in this genre, from James McAvoy. Together, these create one of the most impactful thrillers of the decade with a lead performance that stands head-and-shoulders above any other lead performance in the past year.
The beginning of the movie is incredibly simple, but very effective: three teenage girls, while leaving a birthday party, are abducted by a man and wake up in a locked room with no knowledge of where they are. The girls: Claire, a natural leader played by Haley Lu Richardson; Marcia, a timid but caring girl played by Jessica Sula; and finally Casey, the quiet outsider played by Anya Taylor-Joy, known for her fantastic turn in The Witch. The confusion of the abduction is added to by the abductor’s strange behavior as he adopts different clothing, voices, and statures; once the movie introduces Betty Buckley in the role of his therapist Dr. Fletcher, it becomes clear that the abductor has an identity disorder, one that is eventually revealed to split into 23 different personalities, or “alters”. Each alter is a fully fledged individual, each seeking out time in “the light” (or rather, in control of the abductor’s consciousness), but some are much more malevolent than others. The film becomes a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat balancing act as the girls attempt to decipher these personalities in a race to escape before a mysterious ritual, one where the abductor refers to the girls ominously as “sacred food”.
I won’t delve too much into the plot, as it is full of meandering twists and turns, but not in the classic M. Night Shyamalan sense. These plot devices are well crafted reveals that lead to further characterization as opposed to his earlier twists, which flipped movies on their head at the very end. Shyamalan seems to have refined his addiction to plot twists, making a clear attempt to suggest many results but committing to none until the finale, where the reveal feels like it builds upon the movie, not reversing it. In fact, the structure of this movie is entirely unique as Shyamalan seems to imbue the viewer with the same affliction as the film’s subject. The camerawork is constantly shifting, most notably from the viewpoints of the characters themselves, sometimes literally in first-person. This leads to the unique feeling that you as a viewer inhabit these different personalities, you become the function and form of the very disorder being tackled in the narrative! It is a truly unique viewing experience, an exploitation of the viewer that doesn’t feel like a cheap parlor trick but rather a shifting of the viewer’s very own perspective. It is in this that Shyamalan beats himself at his own game, really suggesting wonderful things for a director who was thought to have hit his peak a decade ago.
However, as much praise as M. Night Shyamalan deserves, James McAvoy is truly the star of this film, propelling what could have been an exploitative and uncomfortable role into one that ascends beyond the needs of the script. McAvoy’s portrayal of the abductor and the varied personalities within bring an intense dose of realism to what is ultimately a very unreal idea that many are not very familiar with. The way he transitions between personalities on screen is not seamless, rather he oh-so-slightly changes his expressions, postures, and mannerisms to display this. Not a word needs to be said: McAvoy simply tilts his head, changes the bright smile into a wry one, and adds a sort of domineering posturing to transform from a nine year old boy to a fully grown matriarch all in the same body. This sort of metamorphosis fills the most tense parts of the film, greatly adding to the sense of confusion or dread the audience experiences. Members of the audience in my showing were even guffawing at mere facial expressions as they realized that another alter had inhabited the abductor, knowing that the scene was completely changed in context from that one bit of incredible acting. I don’t know if the Oscars will consider a movie like this to be in the pantheon of those deserving of Best Actor, but McAvoy certainly deserves such recognition for this incredible role.
There is a certain sense of justice, maybe even pride for someone who has grown up watching M. Night Shyamalan movies their whole life to see this complete reversal of fortune for the filmmaker. I remember watching The Happening in theaters, fraught with disappointment, feeling like someone I had once considered a good friend had gone and slapped me in the face. However, with Split, I am willing to let bygones be bygones, between one of Shyamalan’s tensest and most creative scripts and James McAvoy’s accomplishment of one of the best and most complicated acting roles I have ever seen, this is something you cannot miss.
[easyreview title= "Review of Split" cat1title="Bart's Rating" cat1detail="Overall Review" cat1rating="5.0" overall= false]