Review: Split might not be M. Night Shyalaman’s best treat; but it definitely marks the return of this slick storyteller to his powerhouse realm. In fact, Split is different from Shyalaman’s earlier works due to the absence of an actual, grandiose twist ending; but who needs a twist if the whole film has twisted narrative?
It kicks off like any abduction film, where a nerdy man named Dennis (James McAvoy, a powerhouse version of himself), who has OCD, kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them up in a windowless room. Dennis is living with Patricia, a very neat lady, and Hedwig, a 9-year old lisp boy who loves Kanye West. Yet, sometimes, a fashion-designer wanna-be, Barry, takes over; and, some other time, a history-enthusiast, Orwell, might be there too; also, a diabetic, Jade, might as well be there.
Yet, who knows that Dennis or Patricia or Hedwig or Barry or Orwell or Jade or any other alters is living in the same body? Yes, they’re living inside Kevin, a troubled man with acute dissociative identity disorder, who has 23 personalities living inside him, waiting to take over the spotlight.
As a film about a man with 23 split-personalities, Split is amusing to watch. More amusing is the fact that each personality doesn’t only take over the mind, but the body as well – the body traits, the gestures, the mimics, the accents, and even illness (imagine there’s a personality who needs glasses to see, but others don’t need it; or one personality is diabetic and in dire need of insulin, but the others are not). James McAvoy proves that he’s the gem of this film as he portrays multiple characters at once with attentions to details – the gestures, the facial expressions, and others. More to it, his chemistry with other characters might vary from one portrayal of personality in a drastic change. In short, McAvoy is really the face of Split.
Developing a one-man show as a psycho-thriller is indeed a dangerous experiment Shyamalan successfully conducted. The once-auteur sets up a disturbing kidnapping story, which is more puzzling than sympathetic. Shyamalan crafts an effective claustrophobic sense with occasional mental tortures to the victims – which at some points revealing mental torture to the captor as well. At some points, Split reminds me to claustrophobic survival thriller like Room or 10 Cloverfield Lane, only with a wicked captor in charge.
However, Split is a Shyamalan’s work in and through. Fascinating character is one thing and less-fascinating plot is the frame. The actual question ‘why McAvoy’s character kidnaps those girls?’ is often overshadowed by the overly-strong character. The only thing that could compensate Kevin’s arc is Casey’s – one of the victims portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy (more compelling than she is in The VVitch) – which hasn’t heated up until half-time.
At one point, Kevin’s arc stumbles at repetition as there’s no more revelation about his unique nature. When it happens, Casey’s becomes an important pinpoint, serving audiences a new mystery to unravel about her past. It all sets up to a predictably harrowing final confrontation, which reminds us to Shyalaman’s earlier work.
In fact, Split turns out serving the role of a blood-tied sequel to one of his most compelling films, serving as the film’s ‘twist.’ While this is a new take on Shyamalan’s career – initiating a one-universe narrative to several films, it proves his worth as a top-tier storyteller. On the second viewing, audiences will catch the larger scope and notice that details really matter in Shyamalan’s universe-building, despite minuscule details that makes Split unique.
The cinematography, the multi-faceted imagery, and the narrative prove that Split is Shyamalan’s psychological thriller in and through, with James McAvoy’s terrific performance and good ol’ shocker as its pinnacle. Let’s hope with The Visit and this, the auteur is on his return lane to top performance after some winding road in aftermath of The Village.