CINEMA RELEASE: SPLIT
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Suala
Classification: M (Mature Themes, Violence and Coarse Language)
Review by Peter Gray
Following the mammoth successes of ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘Signs’ one would be right in assuming writer/director M. Night Shyamalan was well on his way to carving out an interesting career for himself. Then along came ‘The Happening’ – commercially successful but critically panned – which many could deem as the beginning of the end for Shyamalan’s artistic clout, before ‘Lady in the Water’, ‘The Last Airbender’ and ‘After Earth’ all but certified his time had come. Clearly reeling from such expensive disappointments, Shyamalan wisely dialled back on budget and adopted a less-is-more approach for 2015’s ‘The Visit’, a found-footage chiller that many considered a return to form.
Whilst it’s arguable if that film was up to his standards, there’s no denying it was a big step in the right direction, and with ‘Split’ he’s once again proving that the constrictions of a tighter budget have no weight in his telling an effective story. Having said that though, as intriguing a story that’s being told here, the success of ‘Split’ relies solely on the performance of James McAvoy, and what a performance he gives. Due to the nature of his character McAvoy is essentially distributing five separate performances, all of which he delivers without missing a beat.
Almost immediately we are thrust into the film’s central conflict which involves the abduction of three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Suala), two of whom are best friends (Richardson and Suala), the other an outsider (Taylor-Joy), who awake in a dark cellar with no recollection of how they got there. The first meeting with their apparent kidnapper, a stern fellow named Dennis (McAvoy), reveals little as to just why they have been chosen, and when he returns moments later under the guise of the polite Patricia, it becomes evident that their abductor has dissociative identity disorder, and it’s only a matter of time before a slew of other personalities come to fruition; a flamboyant fashion designer, a 9-year-old boy, and a newly emerging identity referred to as “The Beast” just some of the 24 personalities housed inside.
Offsetting this situation are two important B-plot strands, one involving McAvoy’s character’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), the other focusing on Taylor-Joy’s Casey and her childhood. The slightly disturbing sequence featuring a young Casey on a hunting trip with her father and uncle allows insight into the character’s stoic ways, and just why she seems so up to the task of taking her abductor on, whilst moments with the psychiatrist edge closer to the reveal of the aforementioned “Beast”; Richardson and Suala unfortunately aren’t given much material beyond their teen-girl-in-peril shtick, though they play it to the best of their abilities.
Ultimately the reason ‘Split’ works as well as it does is because of McAvoy’s committed turn, even when the script challenges him with particular character traits (one scene involves his 9-year-old personality to let loose to the sounds of Kanye West), the actor never wavers. Of course, as is with any Shyamalan effort, the promise of a twist ending is what many will be holding out for, and ‘Split’ certainly delivers something unexpected. Knowing as little as possible benefits the viewer overall with this particular film, and had ‘Split’ not offered its twist (and it’s not until the very end of the film) the final product would still be an extremely satisfying thriller. If you can avoid any or all talk about ‘Split’ then do so, as a great deal of satisfaction comes from this film’s venture into the unknown.
My rating: 4/5