M. Night Shyamalan has had what many would consider a rocky relationship with Hollywood and the movie-going public. His name garnered recognition with his first film The Sixth Sense, a movie that is known for having one of the most spoiler-heavy twist endings. He followed that up with Unbreakable, a film that seems even more relevant now in its portrayal of superheroes and the comic book genre. His next two films, Signs and The Village, made us less interested in his twist endings, but still kept us focused on his strong character development and storytelling.
Our confidence in him waned once he released The Lady in The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth. After Earth didn’t even bother mentioning Shyamalan’s name in the marketing. It seemed he just couldn’t find his footing after achieving such instantaneous notoriety so early in his career. Yet his best stories were smaller in stature and tended to involve characters we could relate to. This is where Shyamalan continues to shine. He’s written the story for Devil, a small film about five people stuck in an elevator while deadly, supernatural events transpire. His most recent directorial project, The Visit, garnered more praise than he’s seen in years and it was a fun, exciting little piece of storytelling. If I had to base the trajectory of his career on his latest film, I’d say he’s getting back to what he does best and, if you are a frustrated M. Night Shyamalan fan, you should be excited to see his name on screen again.
In Split, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and two girls have been kidnapped by a man named Dennis (James McAvoy), which is just one of several personalities living inside his head. While Casey and his friends try to figure out how to escape, a psychologist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is treating Dennis, or Barry, or Hedwig, or Patricia, must determine who she’s really dealing with and how this split personality may have altered both his physical and mental state.
The weight of this story hangs on the performance, or performances, of James McAvoy. Should his many characters not prove believable, we would be completely taken out of the film and just laugh when it wasn’t appropriate. Instead, he pulls off one of the most challenging roles I’ve seen in cinema. Creating several compelling characters and giving each one their own unique mannerisms, body language, and on-screen presence. So much so that with just a minor adjustment of his face I knew exactly which persona our other characters were speaking to. I can’t even point to any one character as my favorite because the handful that we see have at least one or two fantastic scenes.
The camera movements and editing choices in this movie were helpful in presenting the story to us in a way that made it more engaging; and also made us want to learn more about the characters, particularly Casey and her backstory. Anya Taylor-Joy has proven she can give us a strong, female character with depth and emotion. Her portrayal of Casey is terrific and she only enhances the scenes she shares with James McAvoy.
While I enjoyed the small-scale story structure of this film, it wasn’t a perfect execution. I thought that more of James McAvoy’s character should have been explored, which is difficult since he has to represent over 20 personas. Also, I didn’t feel the movie did a good job gaining a proper emotional momentum and thus the impact of the ending wasn’t quite there for me. Some of the ancillary dialogue felt a little contrived compared to the rest of the script as well. I will say that having reflected on the ending and the overall story, the film will have more to offer in repeat viewings.
Split is one of the best films to come from M. Night Shyamalan and that’s saying a lot because, up until now, I would have suggested waiting until video on demand to see any of his newer movies. The story is great and I found the cinematography and editing impressive. Anya Taylor-Joy is a remarkable actress and she has great chemistry with James McAvoy. McAvoy gives an award-worthy performance if anyone in the academy remembers this by next year. The amount of talent and preparation it takes to convey multiple characters with the same face and body is astounding. If you are expecting a twist ending, you won’t be disappointed and you won’t be able to predict it. I would recommend seeing this as soon as possible because of how fast a film like this will be spoiled online. No matter how much you learn about Split going in, you will still be thoroughly entertained by one of this year’s most memorable films.
Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Runtime: 1 Hour, 57 Minutes