The release of Split sees M. Night Shyamalan return in thrilling fashion, as his latest ranks among the best in his filmography. Led by astounding performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, Split tells the story of a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder that kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a windowless room in parts unknown. Throughout the film we see Kevin take on numerous personas as he communicates with the abductees as well as his psychiatrist. From the opening credits the film is tense, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic. Much like The Visit, less seems to be more for Shyamalan.
As proven in the past, M. Night is capable of making well made films from the technical side, it’s the storytelling aspect that has hurt his reputation. Though the subject material could be sensitive to some, it never felt exploited, being used as a vehicle to advance the story. Without going in depth into spoilers, Split does have a typical twist ending which comes as no surprise. This particular “twist” ends up hurting the final product as it loses its original identity, much like the lead characters. Initially we delve into the past of both Kevin and Casey, the captor and the captive. A film where both the protagonist and antagonist are victims, we sympathize for them. As the story begins to wind down, the 90 minutes of character development no longer serves a purpose as Shyamalan instead does a complete 180.
James McAvoy gives a tour de force performance as Kevin, or Barry, or Hedwig, or Patricia, or Dennis. Seamlessly switching from one identity to another, McAvoy gives a proper blend of thrills, chills and even some awkward laughs. This specific character probably doesn’t work and get the reaction from viewers without a great talent behind it. Another stand out is Anya Taylor-Joy who had a breakout year in 2016 with her lead role in the Sundance hit The Witch and her portrayal as an AI in Morgan. Taylor-Joy shows a wide range of emotion as Casey, from being standoffish at the start, to being independent and mature towards the end.
Split follows the same series of shock and awe moments as most M. Night films, but thanks to the two lead performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy we’re at least able to buy into the fictional tale. With the financial success of The Visit and the critical success of Split, M. Night Shyamalan appears to have found his niche with cheap thrillers that focus more so on the story and less on the spectacle. Split falters when McAvoy and Taylor-Joy aren’t on screen, most often when Betty Buckley’s psychiatrist is spewing out exposition. Shyamalan’s latest could have benefitted more from a shorter runtime which would have tightened up the story and given it more thrills per minute. The big reveal at the end is an eye roller as the audience who was once invested in the two leads is told to drop everything and believe Shyamalan’s vision. Similar to 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Split ends with a bait and switch that doesn’t payoff. Despite it’s obnoxious conclusion, Split is a taut thriller that brilliantly spotlights its leads and proves to be a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan.