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Shyamalan Puts It All Together

M. Night Shyamalan
M. Night Shyamalan
Universal Pictures
 127 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy

Few directors have made as stunning a debut in recent years as M. Night Shyamalan, whose first widely released feature, The Sixth Sense, was a huge hit with both critics and audiences alike and earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director and Screenplay for Shyamalan. Ever since, though, he’s been chasing that same acclaim with ever decreasing results, culminating in disasters like The Last Airbender and After Earth. Finally, after years of stumbles and pratfalls, Shyamalan began to turn his career around with The Visit in 2016, a film that was most notable for being a marked improvement over his more recent efforts rather than being a actually quality thriller. Now, in the cinematic burial ground of January releases, he’s finally made a good movie again, Split.


Please don’t get me wrong. Split is not a new Sixth Sense, although both films can rather loosely be classified as horror thrillers. But it is a solid movie, likely to be one of the better horror films of the year and one that demonstrates Shyamalan’s screenwriting skills and an ability to create genuine creepiness without resorting to R-rated levels of gore.


Split is a movie about Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder, or, as we used to say, a split personality. In this case, he has 24 personalities, although the screenplay only shows roughly a third of them. One of these personalities, “Dennis,” a cleanliness freak, kidnaps three teenage girls from a suburban shopping center and locks them up at an unknown location. There the girls meet two other personalities, the female Patricia, who dresses the part, and nine-year-old Hedwig. Once they realize what’s happening and the danger they are in (Kevin drops some hints that another one of the personalities is coming for them to do some very ugly things), the girls start planning their escape.


That is, two of the girls start planning the escape, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). The third girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is the class loner, who was only invited to Claire’s party that day because Claire’s father insisted she invite everyone in the class. Once the girls are captured, however, Casey warns the other two not to try an escape because they don’t know what they might be getting into. Needless to say, Claire ignores their advice and is quickly recaptured. However, the girls aren’t harmed by Kevin, who, instead keeps talking about saving them for someone else.


Besides the girls and Kevin (in his multiple personalities), there’s only one other main character in Split, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is trying to treat Kevin. Her theory is that Kevin’s various personalities are actually healthy for him, and she encourages him to embrace as many of them as possible. This rather bizarre theory is perfectly in keeping with the traditional movie view of psychiatry in which shrinks exist merely to be completely oblivious as to how dangerous their patients are and to provide the audience with the necessary backstory explaining the disorder. In this case, almost anyone who’s ever seen a movie before will realize that Dr. Fletcher’s chances of being around for the final credits are very slim.


In fact, Dr. Fletcher winds up being by far the weakest link in Split. As played by Buckley, the character is actually somewhat dull, and her various interactions with Kevin rather insipid. Nor is Buckley’s performance either dramatic enough or campy enough to be interesting. Instead, her therapy sessions with Kevin slow the story down tremendously, needlessly extending the film to a two-hour running time.


Other than his misstep with Dr. Fletcher, Shyamalan has written a clever film that keeps the audience off balance, first by playing against the usual conventions of the horror genre, and, second, by relying on mood, atmosphere and suggestion to build suspense, rather than cheap jump cuts or buckets of blood. Even though most viewers will easily guess which of the girls will wind up taking on Kevin at the end, the other two aren’t the prototypical horror-movie victims. They aren’t snobby, vindictive, sex-obsessed, or, alternatively, incredibly stupid. Instead, they are just a pair of girls who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Shyamalan also makes good use of a series of flashbacks featuring a younger Casey on a hunting trip with her father (Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke). At first, the audience might think these scenes are merely a distraction, but they go a long way towards establishing Casey’s character and setting the stage for the movie’s climax. Indeed, the climax of Split, when Shyamalan brings all his characters together and provides one reveal after another, most notably that of the full nature of Kevin’s psychosis and the identity and nature of the mysterious 24th personality.


What really sells Split, however, is the performance by James McAvoy. He overplays each of his personalities, much as a real person suffering from dissociative identity disorder would, but he’s able to sketch out some of these personalities in just a few lines of dialogue. In addition, his transformations are practically seamless. Split is a movie that requires showiness on the part of its villain, and McAvoy delivers.


While the bulk of the movie is a slick, polished thriller, Shyamalan saves the best for last, as, in the last 15 minutes, he completely upends viewer understanding of the very nature of the film they are watching. Some may be disappointed, but I found this to be his cleverest screenplay since The Sixth Sense. Mind you, Split does not have as completely mindbending a twist as the ending of Sixth Sense (that’s pretty much of a once-in-a-lifetime gotcha), but it does manage to misdirect the audience in the best, most entertaining way possible.


Split lacks the tight editing needed for a really great thriller, and it still faces the limitations inherent in the hostage thriller genre. But it avoids most of the cheap gimmickry these films apply and Shyamalan earns his frights legitimately, through careful scene setting and an appropriately creepy lead performance by James McAvoy. M. Night Shyamalan has wandered in the cinematic wilderness for far too long; it’s good to see him back on track at last.

In this scene, Anya Taylor-Joy meets Hedwig, one of James McAvoy's many personalities.

Read other reviews of Split:


Split (2016) on IMDb