Split (2017) Universal/Horror-Thriller RT: 117 minutes Rated PG-13 (disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence, some language) Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan Music: West Dylan Thordson Cinematography: Mike Gioulakis Release date: January 20, 2017 (US) Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Kim Director, Lyne Renee.
After a string of failures, it seems like M. Night Shyamalan is back on track with his new psychological thriller Split in which James McAvoy (the X-Men movies) plays a man with dissociative personality disorder who kidnaps three teenage girls. Fans of the writer-director have come to expect certain things of his movies. They won’t be disappointed. Split was filmed in and around Philadelphia (Shyamalan’s hometown). It takes its time getting to where it’s going. A dysfunctional family plays a big role in the story. And, of course, THE BIG TWIST at the end. I will NOT be dropping any spoilers here but I will tell you this. It’s slightly different than anything he’s done before AND it’s a movie that I’d like to see happen. That’s all I’m going to say. Wild horses couldn’t drag it out of me.
It all starts when sociopathic “Dennis” kidnaps Casey (Joy, The Witch), Claire (Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen) and Marcia (Sula) in the parking lot of the King of Prussia Mall after a birthday party. He takes them to an underground lair where they soon learn he has multiple personalities (23 in all) like “Patricia”, a prim and proper British woman, “Hedwig”, a playful nine-year-old boy and dominant personality “Barry”, a flamboyant fashionista. The man’s real name is Kevin; he created the different personalities to cope with a traumatic childhood marked by an abusive mother.
Kevin, as “Barry”, regularly visits a therapist, Karen Fletcher (Buckley, Eight Is Enough), who has some radical ideas about personality disorder. Meanwhile, the girls try to come up with an escape plan. Claire and Marcia want to act immediately but Casey says they should wait until they have a better shot at overpowering their captor(s). Through flashbacks, we learn that Casey also comes from an abusive background. So what does Kevin want with the girls? I’m going to be intentionally vague here. It has something to do with a potential new personality that has yet to emerge. That is all.
Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense has the distinction of being one of the few movies whose endings surprised me. It’s a short list that also includes No Way Out and last fall’s Arrival. Split is NOT on the list but it doesn’t mean that it’s not suspenseful. It is. Unlike most thrillers, I was never quite sure where Shyamalan was going with it. At the same time, the ending didn’t really come as a big shock. It’s cool but doesn’t give you cause to go back and reexamine the events you just witnessed like The Sixth Sense did. Split moves at a deliberate pace which allows the viewer time to get to know the characters. It could be argued that it runs a bit longer than it needs to but nothing in the movie is extraneous or superfluous. Everything that happens is crucial to the plot.
Split marks a return to form for Shyamalan whose obvious primary influence is none other than the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Check out the virtuoso camerawork. Some of the shots are really incredible. Also like his idol, the director gives himself a cameo. Shyamalan has a knack for staging scenes in an efficient and gripping manner that holds the attention of viewers. Take the opening abduction sequence. The girls leave the birthday party. We learn that Claire is a “pity invite”; she’s not friends with Casey (the birthday girl). The girls get in the car while Casey’s dad loads her presents in the trunk. Something happens outside and a moment later, a strange man gets behind the wheel. It takes Casey and Marcia a moment to realize it’s not her dad. Claire notices and just stares in horror. “Dennis” sprays something in the girls’ faces that knocks them out. When they awaken, they’re his prisoners. The director achieves maximum shock without the use of an overbearing score. The events speak for themselves.
McAvoy is terrific as Kevin. He brings life and character to each different personality. He’s hammy at times and does his fair share of scenery-chewing but that’s what makes his performance so fun and scary at the same time. Joy is terrific as the heroine. She has this stillness about her that’s quite chilling. She was the only good thing about last year’s horror dud Morgan. Casey is clearly traumatized by her past but it gives her the strength and toughness she needs to survive her current ordeal. Richardson, another up-and-coming young star, does well as Casey. She’s used to being the alpha so it comes as a real blow when Claire takes charge of the situation. Buckley is great as the therapist who realizes something isn’t quite right about “Barry” during one of their daily emergency sessions.
The creepy score and sound design help make Split an unsettling viewing experience. It’s not a funhouse horror movie like Crimson Peak or Don’t Breathe. It doesn’t rely on elaborate set design, fancy period costumes or CGI to get the desired effect from audiences. It speaks for itself. The idea of being held prisoner in some unknown location by a lunatic is scary on its own. Shyamalan is a good enough filmmaker to realize that many times less is more. He takes a minimalist approach to the story to near-maximum effect. Split isn’t a perfect movie but it’s a great deal better than many of today’s so-called horror movies. It’s a solid three-star flick! Welcome back M. Night, we missed you.