Director: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula and Betty Buckley
Runnng Time: 117 minutes
M Night Shyamalan for better or worse will be always be known as “the twist guy”. A reputation sealed in his most critically acclaimed movies “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” & “Signs” (the last of one of which I was personally not convinced by).
He is also noted for the nose-diving direction of his career after this point, at one point during his critical darling phase he was famously dubbed “The Next Spielberg”, although it was not immediate as his follow-up to “Signs”, “The Village”, while slammed by some was praised by others. His next two however, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening”, were widely ridiculed. This led him to move away from his own ideas to adapting other which did not work for him either as “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” came with some of his worst reviews and lowest box office returns.
However he “went back to his roots” and hit back with low-budget found-footage horror “The Visit” which came out here last year. It garner some of his best reviews since 2003 and was a solid hit. Clearly this has reinvigorated his desire to mine his own material and here in “Split” he gets to do so with a bigger budget and more star power with James McAvoy in the lead role It also stars Anya Talyor-Joy, the breakout star of last’s years breakout horror hit “The Witch” in one of the other leading parts.
It is McAvoy whose performance powers the movie as a character we first meet as “Dennis”. I say first meet as do the fact “Dennis” is merely one of McAvoy’s character 23 different personalities as the character suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Which is shown to not only effect sufferers psychologically but physiologically too as for example one personality could have diabetes while another does not.
“Dennis” is the personality which kidnaps three teens Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Taylor-Joy). While the actresses who play Claire and Marcia are by no means bad it does feel like they are pretty standard horror movie teens-in-peril. The stand-out of the three is Anya Taylor-Joy who gives a very good performance and, to be fair, does have the most interesting and rounded character of the three even if she does start out as a stereotypical surly loner.
The girls in order to try escape have to try and negotiate with “Dennis” other personalities such as the priggish “Partricia” and “Hedwig” who believes himself to be 9 years-old who Casey befriends and seems like their best chance for escape. Another one seen, but not by the girls, is “Barry” who is a gay fashion designer. He is mainly seen interacting in therapy sessions with Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley) with her character forming part of an interesting subplot away from the central kidnap story. In each personality McAvoy does an outstanding job of making each one of them seem unique and utterly believable.
Shyamalan can take a decent amount of credit too, certainly in the film’s opening half, as the early scenes between captor and captives crackle with tension and are imbued with a good dollop of creepiness. The opening pre-credit scene where the kidnap takes place is a classic suspense sequence.
There are problems though especially as the film goes into the final straight as what for a decent proportion of his running time had been a, relatively, grounded suspense thriller plot end ups stretching credulity to breaking point in the third act. Even if some of the events in said third act are pretty entertaining.
Also while it’s dealing with the mental disorder DID is not exactly insensitive, in fact it is at times pretty sympathetic, it is in the end pretty superficial and does not deal with it nearly as cleverly as the film seems to think it does. Even worse than though is (slight spoiler ahead) the use of child sex abuse as nothing more than a plot device in order to explain the steeliness of one character and increase their likeliness of survival.
You may be surpised to learn to that there is no twist here per say but there is several reveals throughout, some clever, some not so much, and there is a big revelation at the end which reframes the story which will no doubt entertain some while flying straight over the heads of others.
Overall: Shyamalan is had so many turkeys over the last decade plus it would not be too hard for something semi-decent to be considered a “return to form”. However while I feel overhyped in some quarters this is at times a very suspenseful, creepy, entertaining, if schlocky, horror-thriller that is lifted up a level by a powerhouse performance from James McAvoy and solid support from Anya Taylor-Joy.
words by Scott Murphy