After nearly 15 years, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has finally delivered a movie that ranks with the trio of films that put him on the map with “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Signs.” “Split” is a psychological-horror drama boasting an impressive performance by James McAvoy and an ending that will be talked about for years to come.
After a series of high-budget duds ranging from forgettable to abysmal, Shyamalan’s 2015 entry into the found-footage horror subgenre was a surprising success with “The Visit.” This year the result is even better.
The film opens with the abduction of three teenage girls in a parking lot who are then imprisoned by Kevin (played by McAvoy,) a man with 23 distinct personalities. To make matters even more dire, Kevin informs his captives that they will soon become sacred food for “The Beast.”
One of the teenagers, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is not only an outcast, but tries to escape the lunatic’s prison by trying to manipulate Hedwig, the 9-year-old personality of Kevin. This adds an interesting dynamic by showing an prisoner trying to swing the balance of power from her captor not through desperate escape attempts, but by appealing to his inner-child. The script does a good job setting up the scenes between Casey and Kevin as we learn more about their traumatic pasts scarred from child abuse.
“Split” also follows Doctor Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin’s psychologist and someone who believes that he is suffering from dissociative identity disorder and that it is something that not only affects him mentally, but can cause slight physical changes in his body. Kevin’s “undesirable” personalities, Patricia and Dennis, want to take it a step further to turn him into a monster with the hunger for human flesh to terrorize people who they deem to be “impure.”
The anchor of the film is James McAvoy’s performance as Kevin and his multiple personalities. McAvoy can be drawing nervous laughter from the audience one second or be downright terrifying the next. Even the humorous moments of the movie are filled with tension as it’s unpredictable when Kevin will switch back to his crueler personalities Patricia and Dennis.
One of the best moments in the film is when Fletcher notices that Kevin is hiding something when his “undesirable” personality Dennis (who has OCD) is trying to trick her by pretending to be another personality “Barry,” a charming fashion designer. The subtle clues as to which personality he is actively channeling (or pretending to) adds an extra reason to pay attention.
With Shyamalan’s film career mainly defined by his love for surprise twist endings, “Split” may just have his most surprising one yet. More so than any of his other movies, the ending will make or break the film for audiences. After the reveal, a lot of what happens in the movie takes on an almost entirely different meaning and will warrant at least a second viewing to catch all the clues.
“Split” is not only recaptures most of the magic that made Shyamalan’s heyday so attention-grabbing but also stands on its own merits as a thoroughly engaging psychological-horror film.
The film is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language and runs for 117 minutes.
4 out of 5 Stars