Split employs a back-to-basics approach that does well in reminding audiences why M. Night Shyamalan was often compared to Alfred Hitchcock. There also were a lot of Spielberg comparisons in those early days of Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, before Shyamalan went down a rabbit hole of his own making that would take him a decade to come back from. But Hollywood loves a good comeback story and Split improbably provides the greatest twist ending for the director yet – a return to form that proves he’s still got the chops to make an entertaining genre pic.
It’s said that art needs constraints in order to thrive and in Split those restrictions are primarily monetary. Working from a reporting budget of only $9M USD, Shyamalan has had to conform to the Blumhouse style. The production company headed by Jason Blum is notorious for tightening their belt on movies that often inventively surpass their limited resources (Whiplash and The Gift being two notable examples). Split then is the confluence of both Shyamalan and Blum’s sensibilities.
It certainly uses some great money-saving techniques – a small cast that’s mostly confined to a single location and the ingenious idea to get the lead actor to play 24 different characters himself. James McAvoy stars as Kevin, a man struggling with dissociative identity disorder as multiple different personalities wrestle for control in his head. The movie wisely focuses on only a handful of personalities for the most part, allowing McAvoy to create unique identities for each (including a fastidious neat freak, a matriarchal woman, and an exuberant 9-year-old boy). McAvoy is the fulcrum upon which the movie rests, and his performance here is remarkably physical and assured.
The plot is simplicity itself: a trio of teenage girls are abducted and taken to a subterranean lair by Kevin (and the competing voices in his head) in the movie’s opening moments. Having been stuck with two popular girls, goth-like Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the outcast of the group, but it’s her pragmatism and survival instincts that may prove to be the key against their mercurial captor. Shyamalan slowly teases out the dire circumstances of their situation, allowing both the characters and the audience to be surprised and menaced as different personalities of Kevin manifest themselves.
The movie moves at a deliberate pace as both Kevin and Casey’s back stories are filled in. It can feel a bit slow and ponderous at nearly two hours long but Split is elevated by its craft and technique. Part of the fun of is its various reveals and suffice it to say that Shyamalan is up to his usual tricks. Here they come as off as mostly fresh and invigorating, as if the director’s time away in the critical hinterlands has reinvigorating his filmmaking style. His framing especially stands out, as he finds a way to clearly lay out the geography of Kevin’s home and create incredible tension by putting the camera in just the right spot. A claustrophobic ventilation duct escape and the final climax in the bowels of a sewer-like system stand out as thrilling examples.
Shyamalan has also layered in deeper themes of victimhood and what it means to rebel and fight back against one’s given situation, as Casey has to rebound not only from being kidnapped but from a tragic past that haunts her. It’s typical horror-movie pop psychology, but it veers away from exploitation by being treated delicately. The central tension is not just whether Kevin’s mysterious 24th personality “The Beast” will emerge, but how and if Casey can combat it and her past trauma. The finale is satisfying on a number of levels, in part because it addresses these questions but leaves enough up to audience interpretation so that it’s not all explicitly spelled out.
Looking at Shyamalan’s filmography post-The Village made it easy to write him off as a director. After a number of big-budget flops that not only lost money but received venomous critical responses (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth) it seemed like his path to redemption was doubtful at best. Split is a welcome surprise, marrying Shyamlan’s finely honed genre skills to the Troma-like frugality of Blumhouse Productions, resulting in a movie that defies expectations by making James McAvoy scary, subverting expectations of a twist ending, and providing some psychological terror.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Runtime: 117 minutes