M Night Shayamalan has certainly become a prolific director, as of late, if not a well renowned one. For all the classics he directed early on in his career, with genre classics like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he’s become more well known for his various disasters, namely failed horror films like The Happening and the failed adaptation of The Last Airbender. Many have speculated that this comes from Shayamalan’s inability to use a larger budget to showcase his genuine talent, finding his form of filmmaking better suited to smaller, more grounded films. Split is his latest attempt to recapture what made his former films so beloved, and mostly works thanks to how restrained it stays, even in the face of utter insanity.
Smartly, Shayamalan’s story of three women abducted by a man with 23 different personalities stays focused on the film’s most interesting part, namely the man himself. A majority of the films running time is spent establishing each of the personalities, how they relate to one another, and the different traits each personality has that the girls need to exploit to get out. While we are told there are over 23, we spend most of our time on about 4 or 5 of them, while getting glimpses of the others near the end. This holding back on personality overload helps establish clear relationships between the different personalities, and makes the drama between them seem tangible enough that you need but so much explanation, leaving more room to enjoy the different performances McAvoy delivers.
The film treats Kevin’s condition with a surprising amount of realism through most of the film, thanks in part to scenes where Kevin discusses his condition with a therapist. While the girls may see him as a freak or monster, the therapist has a legitimate desire to help Kevin and his personalities, and understands that this came from serious trauma in his past. Scenes like this help endear audiences to Kevin as a whole, and to the victim personalities like Barry and Hedwig, while helping establish which personalities are clearly a danger to our 3 protagonists being held captive. The sessions with the therapist ultimately serve dual purposes in the film, both re-establishing which personalities are more dangers to the audience, as well as developing their characters and motivations more so that you understand their viewpoint when they come back and interact with the girls.
The girls in question (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, respectably) all do a decent enough job in fulfilling their cliche’d victim roles. Taylor-Joy is the clear main protaganist in the film as Casey, and thus gets the most screen time of the three. Unlike other films of this nature, you never get the sense that she’s making constant mistakes, and behaves rather realistically, considering her situation. A character-beat for Casey near the end comes off a bit too out of left field, and feels like it only serves to explain part of the ending, but never detracts from her generally good performance. The same can’t be said for Richardson and Sula, however, as their serviceable performances are wasted on little screen time for the two characters, leaving no doubt as to which of the three will make it out alive, and who won’t. It’s understandable that a film like Split would want some sort of body count, but the suspense could have been improved if the film put extra effort into leaving the audience guessing on what the girls fates would be.
The clear draw of the film, however, is James McAvoy, and Split‘s success lays entirely upon his stellar performance. Giving just enough nuance to each of Kevin’s personalities, McAvoy brings the character’s to life in a believable and very unsettling way. While he does paint some of these characters with the broadest of strokes, such as Barry’s flamboyant nature, they blend together in a way that makes it all feel like parts of a singular whole, and the explanation for several of the personalities adds a lot to Kevin’s story. McAvoy also displays himself as each character through pronounced facial and physical differences for each character, adding subtle touches to each performance, and preventing the film from becoming comedic. His final form in the end is highly disturbing through only minor changes in his performance, and is grounded enough to explain when things take a left turn in the third act.
Split‘s unconventional nature ignores common horror tropes, in favor of emphasizing the strengths of the films direction, story and characters. When things take a turn for the worst in the final third, with Kevin hunting down our 3 heroines, Shayamalan avoids jump scares or cheap scenes for an audience reaction, staying true to the established information the audience was given in prior scenes. While Kevin’s actions may go a bit far for some, nothing he does is outside the realm of the possibilities set fourth in this film, keeping to an internal logic that doesn’t pull audiences out of the film.
The film’s few flaws aren’t enough to bring the film down, but may stand out for some. The film briefly goes into dark subject matter, namely situations of rape, which comes somewhat out of place, and should probably be known about before seeing the film. The biggest concern, however, is the films ending scene. Without giving too much away, Split starts as one film and ends up being another, in a way that is divisive to be sure. It isn’t a complete departure from the rest of the film, as it serves to explain some of the more outlandish things in the third act, but will be a surprise reveal that for many will likely fall on deaf ears. I recommend not looking this ending up online before seeing the film, and will provide my spoiler-filled thoughts for those who have seen the film after the arbitrary rating.
Split is the combination of several great parts working together to make a strong whole. Many are likely to praise McAvoy’s performance or Shayamalan’s directing, but both parts serve symbiotically with one another, ultimately amplifying a film that could easily have gone into comedic or downright stupid territory. In a month usually considered a dumping ground for bad movies, that we get something as good as Split is certainly surprising, and hopefully signals a change in direction for Shayamalan. Many have waited for his return as a good director, and while it isn’t without its flaws, Split may be a good sign of things to come.
Arbitrary Numerical Rating: 8.5 Etcetera’s Out of 10
*Spoiler Discussion: Thoughts On The Ending*
Yes, it looks as if we are finally getting a sequel to Shayamalan’s sleeper hit Unbreakable, the story of a man discovering he is a sort of down-to-earth super hero. For years, discussions on whether a sequel would happen have been on many peoples minds, and the way it weaves into Split’s plot is actually one of the films strongest points. This surprise reveal serves as both a great set up for the potential sequel film, as well as explain the more extravagant things that Kevin is able to do as the Beast, namely bend Metal bars with his bare hands and walk on the walls while holding onto the smallest of cracks. It’s placement after the title break was also a smart choice, showing how the film’s immediate story (the three girls trying to escape) is over, while the overarching story (Kevin, his personalities and the Beast) is just starting to begin.
My reservations on the ending, however, come from the nature of Unbreakable as far as it’s popularity among most filmgoers. Remember, it was a sleeper hit, so not that many people are likely to have seen it; as Split has thus far been very successful, it’s surprise ending is likely to leave more audiences confused, rather then shocked/excited for the next film. Likely, this was an attempt to pull a Marvel-Style reveal of whats to come, using a previous project to surprise audiences with its reveal. This doesn’t work, however, if the audience isn’t already familiar with what is being revealed, more likely causing reactions of “wait, why is Bruce Willis in this?” or “who’s Mr. Glass?”, rather then the cheering or wave of surprise that would come with a more well-known reveal. Am I excited for a Split/Unbreakable sequel? Absolutely, but that’s specific to me because of my familiarity to Shayamalan’s past work, making this something that will likely divide audiences, even though everyone should be excited for it.