M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most frustrating directors working today. He’s responsible for some pretty good movies like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. He’s also responsible for The Last Airbender, one of the most misguided film adaptations that Hollywood has ever produced. But throughout the movies of his that I’ve seen (everything from 1999-2010, minus The Happening), Shyamalan has always demonstrated time and again that his breakout success The Sixth Sense was not a fluke. He is incredibly talented, more than proficient technically, and knows how to utilize his actors well. Neither The Village nor Lady in the Water are great movies, but the performances and pacing and handling of suspense are so good that you don’t realize the ridiculousness of their plots until you step back and think about it.
In Split, Shyamalan demonstrates the same skill he showed in his earlier successes. The movie tries to walk the line of thoughtful suspense and thoughtless exploitation, but more than occasionally veers into a weird middle area. Granted, with the premise of the movie being about a man with 23 personalities kidnapping three teenage girls, that is not surprising. But towards the end of the movie, one of the girls is without a shirt and another is without pants. Split never sexualizes these developments, instead attempting to justify them by having their removal be due to one of the personalities’ intense OCD. It adds to the disturbing nature of the kidnapping, but I’ll admit to not fully understanding the point of this decision.
Much praise will be given to James McAvoy for his performance. And rightly so, because holy hell does he give this role (or roles) his all. Approaching each personality with just the right amount of sincerity, humor, and menace, this movie is heavily reliant on this performance working, and thankfully it does. There’s a scene in the latter half of the film where McAvoy’s character experiences what can be best described as personality overload, jumping between quite a few of them in less than a minute. McAvoy is so good with his handling of the scene that you feel sadness for the plight of this character instead of incredulity. The only other performance I’ve seen that is on this level/slightly beyond this level of transformation is the great Tatiana Maslany on Orphan Black.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance is also in need of much praise. The reasoning behind the outsider nature of her character, Casey, is slowly revealed over the course of the film, but Taylor-Joy effectively conveys that Casey has experienced trauma even before we fully know what has happened to her. Casey’s initial reactions towards the kidnapping are specifically defeatist in a way that conveys fear instead of lazy writing, which is in large part because of Taylor-Joy.
I’m hesitant to get into the plot of this movie because the gradual reveal of McAvoy’s characters’ ultimate motivation is paced quite well. Shyamalan demonstrates how good he is at giving the audience just the right amount of information to keep you not too informed, but not completely lost. And that takes genuine skill to pull off. Split builds to a pretty solid climax that involves the degree of change that these personalities can have on McAvoy’s character, and then ends slightly ambiguously regarding how the surviving characters will handle what has just happened to them. It isn’t a perfect ending.
And then Shyamalan does something else. He ends the movie on a scene that is… well… it’s the reason why I’m splitting (credit to my partner for that joke) my review into two parts. Because there is a lot to discuss about the actual ending to this movie. Proper spoilers for the climax of Split will also be in that part.
Bottom line: is Split worth seeing? Absolutely. For McAvoy and Taylor-Joy’s performances alone, yes. Is M. Night back to his A-game? Yes and no. See Part 2 for more on that.