Writer / Director M.Night Shyamalan has had an interesting career. He broke out of the gate with ‘The Sixth Sense,’ a film that ushered in the PG-13 supernatural thriller, and shocked the world with a calculated twist no one saw coming. He followed that film with a series of original movies (‘Unbreakable’, ‘Signs’, ‘The Village’) that met decent critical reaction and created that rare pop culture phenomenon – the superstar writer / director (see: Hitchcock, Spielberg, and not many more) who could actually draw an audience based on name alone. Then something happened, Shyamalan got lost in his own mystery box gimmick, making film after film that just didn’t work at all, on any level (‘The Lady in the Water’, ‘The Happening’, ‘The Last Airbender’). With his latest film. ‘Split,’ he seems to have gotten his mojo back in a major way. Centering the film on a few great performances, in a taut locale, with a relatively simple story, he is able to capture the attention of an audience and hold them in the palm of his hand.
‘Split’ follows the abduction of three teenage girls and their strange, horrifying, yet fascinating interactions with their captor, a man suffering from a severe case of dissociative identity disorder. James McAvoy (Charles Xavier in the recent string of ‘X-Men’ films) brilliantly portrays a number of the 23 (and plot driving emergence of the 24th) varied personalities inside the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb. Shyamalan wisely focuses the action, plot, and scenes on McAvoy’s unhinged but measured performance and his interactions with his three captives as well as his long time psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley in an assured return to the big screen). Anya Taylor-Joy, hot off her remarkable performance in last year’s new horror classic, ‘The Witch,’ plays Casey, the outcast member of the group of captive teens, herself hiding a terrible trauma slowly unfurled in flashbacks involving her father and his resourceful teachings. Taylor-Joy is extremely effective at portraying a damaged and resilient young woman – her interactions with McAvoy, particularly his nine year old identity Hedwig, a physical performance that provides some real laughs in an otherwise gripping movie, illustrate her resourcefulness and endear her to viewers.
Audiences are taken aback by the emergences of the very different personalities of McAvoy’s Kevin, from the effeminate fashion designer Barry, to the aforementioned Hedwig, and the chilling personas of the brusque OCD Dennis and the calmly menacing Patricia. While at first there may be reactions of nervous laughter in the theater, it quickly becomes abundantly clear that this serious situation is escalating and Shyamalan is able to draw the audience into the mind of this unique individual. There are some weak moments in a screenplay that is undoubtedly from the M.Night mold, but overall this is very solid storytelling that builds to a satisfying crescendo. For those that enjoyed the heady rollercoaster rides of his best thrillers, ‘Split’ is up there with his finest . . .
Written & Directed By: M.Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 117 min.
* * * 1/2 (out of 4 stars) -OR- B+