After over a decade of being stuck in a rut of abject failure (The Last Airbender, The Happening) and dull misfires (Lady in the Water), the director once proclaimed as the next Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan seemed to be growing more and more distant from his early The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (which many call his best film) promise. Until in 2015 a glimmer of hope arrived in the flawed but improved low budget offering The Visit but can Shyamalan truly get back on form with his interesting new Horror/Thriller Split, which seems blessed by a potential-filled concept.
Friends Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped from a car park by a man called Kevin (James McAvoy). They all soon wake in an undisclosed room and fear the worst, however their fears cannot prepare them for what comes next, as Kevin has an extreme case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and the girls will have to circumnavigate Kevin’s 23 personalities if they are to survive but as all these personalities talk of the arrival of a 24th called ‘The Beast’, things could get worse...
As premises go, this is a great one but Shyamalan’s recent struggles suggest that, like Kevin, this film could go any way, thankfully it emerges as his best film in over a decade. The strength of the film, which has vibes of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Psycho about it, cannot be put down to just one aspect, as this is an ambitious work that touches on many intriguing ideas. Split is really a story about how the abused can be transformed by their past into something dangerous and disturbed and while some may well be thrown by how the film comes to venture into full on Horror at the end, not to mention the exaggerated approach, this is an entertaining and occasionally unsettling (see a particular flashback for Casey) experience.
The cast are great, with Taylor-Joy being a refreshingly more switched on and intelligent “victim” than often portrayed in this kind of film and Betty Buckley being a wonderful character as Kevin’s understanding therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher. However, this is James McAvoy’s film and he is show stealing, portraying so many personalities (from a 9 year old to a stern middle aged woman) with subtle nuances and perfect personal touches, that you eventually notice who has taken over Kevin’s body before they even speak. McAvoy is awards worthy here and elevates the film from a fun ‘70s Horror throwback or B-Movie into something psychologically deep drilling and rather affecting (as Kevin comes to have a touch of The Fly’s Seth Brundle about him).
It is not perfect - Claire and Marcia are forgettable and some ideas are not fleshed out as well as they could be - but Split is a true return to form for Shyamalan, who delivers the kind of film here, we craved from him the last few years. Complete with a lead performance so compelling and ingenious that even the odd pole vault from realism to dark fantasy is made tangible. Not to mention that closing moment, which suggests that Shyamalan is well and truly delving back into the kind of work many cite is his best. Welcome back!
SPLIT / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN / STARRING: JAMES MCAVOY, ANYA TAYLOR-JOY, BETTY BUCKLEY, HALEY LU RICHARDSON, JESSICA SULA / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
Expected Rating: 5/10