Split is M. Night Shyamalan’s Best Work in 15 Years
Review by Daniel Rester
After over a decade of delivering disappointing films, once-promising writer-director M. Night Shyamalan took a small step back in the right direction with The Visit (2015). Now with Split, the filmmaker has made a full welcome return by crafting something that measures up to his early work. It’s simply his best film since Signs way back in 2002, which is such a refreshing thing to say.
The setup is basic but tense: Two teenage friends, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and an introvert named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are abducted by a man after a party. They are kept in a strange underground lair by the man, trying to figure out what he wants with them. They soon come to find out that the kidnapper, Kevin (James McAvoy), actually has multiple personalities – which makes the situation even trickier than anticipated for the girls.
Being Shyamalan, one knows there is more to the twists and turns of the plot along the way. I will say that we meet a therapist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who studies Kevin, and that Casey has some importance to her character history. But other than that I don’t want to reveal anymore as Split is one of those thrillers that is best enjoyed with the story surprises intact.
The fact that I am so protective of the plot points here is already a good sign for Shyamalan’s writing. Despite making a number of ludicrous films since Signs, Shyamalan has never lost his touch for coming up with at least an interesting base concept for his projects. The difference this time is that his story in Split goes to places beyond that base and has character complexities, world building, and surprises that are genuinely intriguing rather than incoherent. The writing also has welcome humorous touches that really work; it’s not a case of serious stuff that’s unintentionally hilarious à la The Happening (2008).
What really makes Split work so well are the characters of Kevin and Casey and McAvoy and Taylor-Joy’s performances behind them, respectively. McAvoy proves once again that he is one of the better talents of his generation. He gives each of Kevin’s different personalities various shadings of spoken language and body language without ever quite making any of them caricatures. Sure, some of them are creepier, funnier, or weirder than the other, but each one is believable due to McAvoy’s tour-de-force; I especially enjoyed his unsettling performance as “Dennis.”
Taylor-Joy continues to impress as an up-and-comer, bouncing off of star McAvoy well and making it look easy. She shined in The Witch and Morgan last year and it’s no different with Split. The young actress is able to do a lot with a little, using stillness and expressive eye movements as strengths rather than just relying on “big moments” in order to impress.
Richardson and Sula are serviceable in their roles, but their characters are more standard-issue than Casey when it comes to material like this; they get more of the expected crying and panicking moments. Buckley — a veteran of stage acting — does a fine job as Fletcher, though some of her scenes with Kevin drain some of the film’s momentum at times.
While I wish Shyamalan would use a few less extreme close-ups on faces, he proves that he still knows how to stage and capture things grippingly the majority of the time. Getting cinematographer Mike Gioulakis – who shot the eerie It Follows (2014) – to lens this material was a smart choice. Gioulakis is skillful at making images look graceful and intimidating all at once, which is a perfect match for Shyamalan. The slow-moving score by West Dylan Thordson is a plus most of the time as well, though the beautiful music choices of usual Shyamalan collaborator James Newton Howard are somewhat missed.
Split is a clever and creepy thriller with two great performances and a true return-to-form level of craftsmanship from Shyamalan. Without spoiling anything, I will say the third act started to disappoint me in ways until the very end of the film, where everything before it is redeemed and makes sense because of a certain thing. Some might be confused by the conclusion, but those familiar with Shyamalan’s work will appreciate it.
My Grade: A- (on an F to A+ scale).
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language).