BY VINCENT ABBATECOLA
M. Night Shyamalan has had an interesting career as a director, to say the least. He rose to fame in the late summer of 1999 with his supernatural drama, “The Sixth Sense,” and then followed up the next year with his superhero thriller, “Unbreakable.” Shyamalan’s next movie arrived with his sci-fi drama, “Signs,” which was terrifically spine-tingling, despite some questionable aspects with the overall story.
However, his filmmaking abilities started to show a bit of doubtfulness with “The Village,” which had quite a bit going for it, until the rather silly double-twist ending. The decline in quality became steeper with his next four movies: the woefully misguided fairy-tale thriller, “Lady in the Water”; the unintentionally hilarious “The Happening”; the unfaithful adaptation of “The Last Airbender”; and the eyebrow-raising, Will Smith-Jaden Smith vehicle,“After Earth.” It wasn’t until the fall of 2015 where Shyamalan made a small step towards his return to form with his quietly creepy found-footage film, “The Visit.”
Now, with his psychological-horror thriller, “Split,” he shows that he’s on the path back to the greatness for which audiences once knew him and delivers his best movie in years.
One afternoon, on their way home from a party, high-school students Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are kidnapped by Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder, who locks away the girls in his home. When they learn of his condition, they attempt to use his personalities against him to try to escape. Little do they know, he has a total of 23 personalities, and a 24th, known as “The Beast,” is on the verge of being unleashed.
James McAvoy offers a brilliant, unsettling, and unpredictable performance, which is also one of his finest to date. He has a handle on all of the personalities he presents, smoothly transitioning from one to the other. While doing so, he’s able to keep the behavioral characteristics, physical movements, and speech for each disposition very distinct, always remaining perfectly in tune with whichever side of his character the story needs him to display and maintaining the consistency of the traits of each personality. You can tell McAvoy spent a considerable amount of time on crafting these personas in order to make them as believable as possible, and it’s every bit as fun to watch him perform as it is chilling. Although we’re only in January, McAvoy’s work in this film could turn out to be one of the most memorable performances of the year.
Anya Taylor-Joy provides an empowering performance as someone who must use her survival skills to escape this horrific scenario. While being a closed-off individual at first, it’s liberating to see Taylor-Joy’s character come into her own and work to outsmart her captor. What makes Taylor-Joy’s performance so effective is that she doesn’t show many traces of her character being scared, but instead stays rather calm, processes the situation, and tries to figure out how to break free. With all of this, Taylor-Joy exhibits the strength and collected mind of a horror heroine for whom we can cheer.
Although the screenplay by Shyamalan mainly has the story take place in Kevin’s home, one of the best aspects about the story is how it provides scenes of Kevin at a few therapy sessions, which offer an in-depth analysis of Kevin’s psyche, allowing us to understand his character, learn how his personalities control him, and decipher the possible cause behind his mental illness, and all of this gives us Shyamalan’s most psychological film to date. We get these scenes occasionally throughout the film, and they are some of the most fascinating to watch as we see how McAvoy’s character reacts to the sessions.
Although the film is a little slow in the beginning, it nevertheless keeps you in its vice for its duration. And, believe me, you’ll want to see this movie has soon as you can to avoid spoilers because Shyamalan offers an ending on par with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” and he leaves us with a lot to discuss after the film’s conclusion.
In terms of directing, Shyamalan has improved on adding a bit of humor to the creepiness. While that blend didn’t work at all for “The Happening” and not quite as well for “The Visit,” he knows how to use occasional comic relief in this film when it works for Kevin’s “Hedwig” personality. Although it seems like dissociative identity disorder has been a plot point for several films, “Split” takes this concept in a direction that’s both interesting and layered, with the help of McAvoy’s performance, Shyamalan’s narrative, and the resurgence of the latter’s directorial talents.
The new year has brought us definitive proof that Shyamalan is on the road to a comeback, and if he continues to remain as close to the quality of his earlier films as he does with “Split,” I can’t wait to see what he surprises us with next.
Final Grade: A