Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Breaking news, M. Night Shyamalan has made another movie. From the acclaimed director of ‘The Sixth Sense’ and ‘Unbreakable’ to the truly incredible (note the sarcasm here) films like ‘The Last Airbender’, ‘The Happening’, and ‘After Earth’, M. Night’s storied career has been in the public eye for close to two decades now. As someone who likes watching movies, M. Night has always been a source of entertainment. Despite his string of films post ‘The Village’ to now, every awful film he made that should’ve ended his career has provided some great entertainment in recent memory. ‘The Happening’ is one of the better comedies from the 2000s and ‘The Last Airbender’ is a great movie to watch for aspiring filmmakers because it shows what NOT to do. So when the trailer dropped for ‘Split’ and M. Night’s name was plastered all over it, and James McAvoy was doing his thing onscreen, I knew he was making his return to form.
‘Split’ stars James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Betty Buckley in a story about a man named Kevin, played by McAvoy, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder and has manifested 23 separate personalities. One of these personas kidnaps three young girls, and then holds them in captivity in some undisclosed location. All of this is going on while Kevin’s psychiatrist, played by Buckley, is trying to figure out what exactly is going on in Kevin’s brain.
‘Split’ works as a movie, despite its somewhat ridiculous premise, due to McAvoy’s truly Oscar-worthy performance. Even though 23 personalities are advertised, he only shows 7 or 8, and each one has a distinct character. McAvoy changes his face, voice, characterisations, and general attitude to fit each new character, and he does it with the perfect amount of seriousness that keeps the film lighthearted enough to be entertaining and creepy enough to keep the audience on their toes. I love as an actor James McAvoy generally, but this performance is fantastic. The other leads also hold their own with McAvoy’s screen domination. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, who is one of the young girls kidnapped. In the beginning, I found her to be somewhat underwhelming, but through the course of the run-time, I began to develop an appreciation for what she was doing, and by the end when her entire backstory comes into frame, her character and performance blew me away. She is the most in-depth character in the movie. Betty Buckley serves as our exposition character, where she gives the audience the information they need to know. She’s not particularly well-written, but she does well in what she is given.
The other notable thing that lets the movie work is its direction. M. Night Shyamalan has moments of smart, subtle detail being added in his films, and this movie is no exception. He gives depth to Kevin and Casey, not by blatantly showing the audience what they need to know, but by allowing the film to take its time and setting up the story. Sometimes his former, worse director self emerges, and this can be seen whenever Casey’s fellow hostages are on screen. They never find a good mix of over-the-top or underacting, and their characters are incredibly bland as well. He also shows his former self in the scenes where they just dump exposition on the audience. But other than basic stuff like this, he has made a return to form.
There’s one heavy element that weighs on my rating of this film, and of course, it’s the “big Shyamalan twist.” To avoid spoilers, I will not discuss specifics, but the more time has passed, the more it has grown on me, because what I originally saw as a giant ego stroke, it really has more nuance than that.
Overall, Shyamalan is back. Get hyped. ‘Split’ isn’t his best feature, but it certainly is top three and serves its purpose as an original suspense-thriller movie released in January of all times, when crappy movies get their time in the sun. ‘Split’ is more than a January movie, it’s a good movie for the whole year.