Split is the film adaptation of M. Night Shyamalan’s misunderstanding of 30-year-old, since-discredited psychology textbooks on Dissociative Identity Disorder, but if we deign to treat it with scientific scrutiny, we’ll be here all night. Suffice it to say, don’t go looking at anything in this film as psychologically valid in any way. But do go see Split, because it’s probably M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since Signs. Or maybe since Unbreakable, for that matter.
If you were unaware that Split was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, you could be forgiven for that bit of ignorance. Studios distributing his films still have a strange relationship with Shyamalan’s name, even after the commercial and critical success of 2015’s The Visit. They can’t seem to decide whether prominently seeing the name “Shyamalan” in a trailer or TV spot is a boon or a pitfall, whether it’s something that will inflate weekend grosses thanks to whatever Sixth Sense fondness still remains in the moviegoing public or drive them down through association with the likes of The Happening or The Last Airbender. The man is a contentious figure in America, and he’s responsible for the only time I’ve ever heard an entire audience laugh out loud when a director’s name flashed on screen during a film trailer.
I’ve been fascinated by Shyamalan’s fall from grace after he was proclaimed at a young age as the “next Hitchcock.” I gave The Visit a cautiously positive score, finding it entertaining but deceptively marketed by the studio as a true horror film when it’s actually much more of a horror comedy. I even ranked every film in Shyamalan’s career, which I’ll be updating immediately with Split. Because if The Visit hinted that there was more still left in the director’s tank, Split is the true “return to form” for which his fans have secretly been holding out since the early 2000s.
The story is refreshingly conventional in structure: A man suffering from lifelong dissociative identity disorder (James McAvoy) kidnaps a group of three girls, including Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, still fresh off her head-turning performance in our #1 horror movie of 2016, The Witch. As they languish in captivity and begin to understand the quirks of the man who has imprisoned them, they must use what they can learn about his various personalities to escape before the arrival of a mysterious 24th (and final) personality, “The Beast.” Supporting is an elderly therapist (Betty Buckley) who has championed the cause of DID sufferers in the medical community, and treated McAvoy’s character for years.
One must first talk about McAvoy, an actor for whom Shyamalan must have been ecstatic to write a huge leading part. He is tremendous in Split, playing the type of role for which you unfortunately can’t win a major award—unless the film is a drama, of course. His subtle changes in body language, posture and facial expressions effortlessly convey whichever personality is “in the light” at any given moment. Unfortunately for those wanting to see some truly zany acting, the “23 personalities” aspect is more of a tease than anything else. The true context of the film revolves around four or five of those personalities coming into conflict with one another, while the others simply make very brief or nonexistent cameos.
Also excellent is Buckley, in the “Ahab”-type role you’d find in a slasher film, the only person in the movie who knows what Kevin/Barry/Dennis/Patricia/Hedwig, etc. is capable of. It’s Taylor-Joy who is given the least to do of the principals, often silent or passive before leaping to brilliant insights that don’t feel entirely earned. Her fight to survive is intertwined with flashbacks to her childhood and family that slowly reveal the extent of her own personal damages, in ways that are organic and sensible, but are unfortunately largely discarded by the conclusion.
It seems likely that some reviewers will focus heavily on the film’s underlying visual themes of imprisonment and violation, especially as it applies to three young women who are imprisoned by a man and gradually stripped of clothing by the neat-freak personality “Dennis.” Ultimately, I don’t think this aspect can distract from what is really quite an entertaining film, but I won’t deny that it’s uncomfortable to imagine the costume designer’s quest for tank tops with exactly the right amount of prominent cleavage for “respectful” titillation on the 20-year-old Taylor-Joy. There are several moments wherein the camera’s leering gaze feels more than a little self-serving.
Still, if there’s one way that Split reinvigorates Shyamalan’s stock most, it’s as a visual artist and writer-director of tension and thrilling action. The film looks spectacular, full of Hitchcockian homages that remind one of Vertigo and Psycho, to name only a few. It’s a far scarier, more suspenseful film in its high moments than The Visit ever attempted to be, and it may even be funnier as well, although these moments of levity are sown sparingly for maximum impact. Mike Gioulakis deserves major props for cinematography, but the other thing that will stick in my mind is the unexpectedly great sound design, full of rumbling, groaning metallic tones. The film has the sound of an overtaxed bridge about to collapse, which is an all-too-apt aural metaphor for McAvoy’s mental state.
Ultimately, the pulpy entertainment of Split is almost enough to not realize that this is actually Shyamalan’s longest-ever feature, at 117 minutes. It should go without saying that there’s superfluous material in there, dross in the second act which could easily be skimmed away. The conclusion, too, is problematic on a few levels, and will likely feel inadequate as a payoff to some after the two-hour journey. But viewed in the context of Shyamalan’s career, I’m almost willing to forgive some minor quibbles with any conclusion that isn’t meant to be perceived as an Earth-shattering twist. After so many films that relied on the kind of overwrought twist ending that made The Sixth Sense so buzzy in 1999, it seems like Shyamalan has finally gotten over the hump to make the kinds of stories he makes best: atmospheric, suspenseful potboilers. Here’s hoping that this newfound streak of humility is here to stay.
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
Release Date: January 20, 2017
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident M. Night Shyamalan movie-watcher. You can follow him on Twitter.