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Perhaps the biggest twist of Split- an M. Night Shyamalan film released in January during the most depressing Inauguration Day in American history- is that it’s a great movie. Not just decently passable, but an genuinely impressive psychological thriller that’s reminiscent of past work The Sixth Sense and, to a degree, Signs. Taking a common trope found in horror film, the villain with multiple personality disorder, Shyamalan manages to push it to the limit while at the same time making the idea seem fresh and exciting. The result is a throwback to the Hitchcockian thematics, one that is remarkably tense and bound to leave audiences squirming uncomfortably in their seats for all the right reasons. If 2015’s The Visit (his last feature) showed that there was still some fire left in Shyamalan after critics and audiences deemed him a lost cause, then Split is his return to form and one that will hopefully put the director’s list of big-budget bombshells behind him for good.
Split focuses on a socially-reclusive high school girl named Casey (Anya Taylor Joy, The Witch), who is reluctantly invited to a birthday party by classmates Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Maria (Jessica Sula). Offering to give her a ride back home, the three girls are drugged and kidnapped by a man named “Dennis,” who locks them up in an undisclosed location. However, after attempting to escape, it becomes clear that things are more complicated that they originally appeared to be, as Dennis is not solely responsible for their current situation. Rather, he is one of twenty-three separate personalities living inside the body of a man named Kevin, all of whom are played with disturbing intensity by James McAvoy. While such a plot device could have easily come off as unintentionally hilarious, as seen in previous Shyamalan films like The Happening, Split makes it work through the gradual introduction of each “character” over time, adding to the unpredictability of its antagonist. Whether it’s the hipster artist “Barry,” the pre-teen adolescent “Hedwig,” or the religiously stern “Patricia,” McAvory ensures that no two personalities are alike, making each one all the more unsettling when you see them emerge from the same actor’s body.
This sense of dread is further expanded by how it affects the three female characters, all of whom are forced to deal with their kidnapper and his many faces. Sadly, the actresses playing Claire and Maria don’t get much to work with, reacting as most people would expect themselves to behave in such a situation and then getting minimal screentime after the first act. Split makes it clear early on that a third of its focus, alongside Kevin’s personalities, is that of Casey, who Anya Taylor Joy plays with a strange sense of calmness towards the events transpiring around her. She doesn’t freak out at the possibility of death, but instead seems to know exactly what to do and how to behave amongst the personalities, as if these events were completely natural. This is explored further through a series of flashbacks that expand upon Casey’s past, carrying with them a dark undertone that explains her rather stoic behavior. In a sense, this take on her character is a subversion of the final girl trope commonly found in horror films, allowing Casey to match McAvory’s character on a psychological level.
The final third of this film’s focus lies with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buxley), a psychologist who works with Kevin in hopes of understanding his personalities and the growing fracture between them. Her character provides the film with a sense of warmth and relaxation, allowing the audience to breath in between moments of tension from the interactions between Kevin and the girls. But more than that, her presence allows Shyamalan a means of further developing his villain and story in a way that could never be achieved had the film taken place exclusively in Kevin’s home. From their interactions, one gains an understanding of why these personalities act the way they do and how they interact with one another. There’s a hierarchy between all these mentalities, but they are all born out of a place of childhood trauma, which allows us to sympathize with Kevin even as his actions are brought into question. All this centers around why he chose to kidnap these three girls in the first place, as well as what they have to do with an entity the personalities refer to as “the Beast.”
It’s here that the film begins to push it’s rather unique plot to the limits of plausibility, which can be seen as good or bad depending on how far you are willing to go with Shyamalan’s vision. At first, I was skeptical of the direction in which Split was going, fearing that it would end up taking the film down the path of disaster suffered by many Shyamalan films in the past. However, by the end I fully embraced the choices he made because of a twist that I cannot spoil, but will admit that I did not see coming. All I will say is that if you are familiar with the more positive elements of Shyamalan’s past work, then you will get why the twist succeeds.
After years of disappointment, M. Night Shyamalan made the comeback that he desperately needed. With Split, he has regained the talent critics and audiences thought he once lost, delivering on a suspenseful and unsettling horror film that showcases James McAvory’s acting to its fullest potential. Now all Shyamalan needs to do is apologize for the entirety of The Last Airbender and all will be forgiven.