Wow. I did not expect this from a director whom I have been mocking since, well, the ending of The Village in 2004. This is a quality film. Very tense, very unpredictable. A very brave approach towards storytelling.
Split deals with really heavy subject material: that of kidnapped young women who are held in some basement somewhere. I am not quickly up to seeing a film about that because it makes me so uncomfortable. Last year’s film Room (2015) was about this, with Brie Larson, which was done extremely well; Room was perhaps the best, most powerful film of the year. But who would trust a muddling director like Shyamalan with subject material like that? I wouldn’t.
But I would invite people to take that chance. However, first we need to talk about Kevin (James McAvoy). Imagine that you have multiple personality disorder and there are 23 other personalities inhabiting your body. You got this way through a defense mechanism against abuse in your childhood years. The chances are that one of those 23 personalities is crazy enough to commit a crime, like abducting people. It is up to the three girls to figure out which personalities to trust, which might be able to help them escape. Kevin thus becomes more than a villain: he becomes an object of study.
And James McAvoy deserves 23 Oscars for his performances. That man is a such a talented actor and this is a moment for him to shine. The way he uses his voice is amazing, although his “personalities” are quite over the top to distinguish each from the other. He is more comedic than scary, really. Some of his scenes are only there to get a laugh out of the audience, but that also totally takes away the horror of the situation. The best thing is that you start to recognize specific personalities as the film progresses. A second arc involves one of the girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has her own troubled background and figures out what is going on quicker than the other girls. We see more and more revealed about her. More good acting comes from Betty Buckley, who plays Kevin’s psychiatrist and tries to find rapport with most of Kevin’s personalities.
This isn’t a horror film. It is a psychological thriller; tense, but not really scary. As soon as the film starts introducing the various characters of Kevin, there are even some elements of dark comedy and it starts to dawn that this film is much more about exploring the puzzle of multiple personalities than about horror and the struggle to escape. This film, in the end, is not so much about the victims of crazy people, but much more in support of people who carry wounds from the past. Shyamalan however is still not the right person to explore those themes.
The story adds some supernatural elements that made me groan at first. I thought: this is Shyamalan messing it all up because he wants to add something spiritual again. Like the whole story about faith in Signs (2002), and whatever that nonsense was in The Happening (2008); please Shyamalan, leave that stuff out of it, because it always makes your movies fall apart. However, in the end it all sort of makes sense and the incongruities get solved. What a relief at the end, and what a sudden potential for follow-up films.
It is really hard to say how this movie will be regarded in a few years’ time. It depends in fact largely on whether Shyamalan plans to film any sequels. Right now, Split is a return to form for this troubled director and may be the beginning of an upward trend. The positive tone of my review may also be an artifact from being pleasantly surprised at this moment, but the film clearly has its ridiculous moments. Time will tell for this movie.