Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
If there's one American writer/director I feel sorry for, it's M. Night Shyamalan, despite not being his most vocal supporter in the past. He's a man who has been daring and adventurous with his projects, but like others greats such as Stephen King, his concept-fueled works often bear interesting setups that are handicapped by disappointing payoffs. With 2015's The Visit, he essentially showed that he does have a keen ability not only in merging genres, but toying with them, and successfully delivered, what I felt to be, one of his most prized works.
With Split, he gives his die-hard fans and naysayers something to chew on with a retrospective and thoroughly unsettling picture that toys with continuity and what we know about the characters we've been introduced to so quickly.
The film opens in the midst of a party, where three teens - Claire (The Bronze's Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and the loner Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy) - are kidnapped in their father's car by Kevin (James McAvoy). He takes them back to a massive, dingy boiler-room basement, where pipes, smoke, and industrialized noises fill the air, trapping the three girls in a small bedroom. As time passes, and Kevin returns for repeated checkups, they get a sense of the man they're dealing with - a man with multiple personality disorder, or more commonly referred to as "dissociative identity disorder." We're told from Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), Kevin's psychiatrist whom we repeatedly flashback and forward to, that twenty-three personalities live inside Kevin's body; everyone from a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig, a formal but troubled woman named Patricia, and the quiet but scheming Dennis, who kidnapped the three girls, shows themselves through Kevin at one point.
M. Night Shyamalan
James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
20 January 2017
Steve's Grade: B
Kevin's disorder is so severe that some personalities have specific attributes others do not. For example, "Jade," a young woman who lives inside him, takes insulin shots due to her diabetes, something that affects only her and not any of Kevin's other identities. Even other specific allergies to bee-stings one personality could have doesn't affect the other twenty-two. While Kevin is being controlled by his many personalities, the three girls try to find a way out of their murky confines, with a foggy and uncertain Casey trying to take charge over her two more impulsive friends.
It must be said how incredible James McAvoy is in a challenging role that I feel most would've struggled to play even half as effective as he managed. McAvoy is, at times, truly frightening on the basis of how his smile appears or how his mannerisms change in the blink-of-an-eye. He's tasked to assume the traits, speaking patterns, and general movements of several different characters, sometimes within the same scene, forced to appear as if his body-chemistry is changing before our very eyes, and he handles the role with a knockout punch that's frequently electrifying.
Shyamalan, on the other hand, works to craft a decidedly Hitchcockian environment with Split. He creates an eminently disturbing and potent film that remains eerie even in moments when it seems fairly casual, such as the scenes involving Dr. Fletcher. With this, it surprised me that most in my packed showing were laughing out loud at McAvoy's character(s) quite frequently, especially when he portrayed Hedwig. This is where much of my sympathy for Shyamalan surfaces. I feel he's a constantly misunderstood and ridiculed director that has these grand ideas that either go unnoticed by the public (myself included) and are responded to with laughter or immature outbursts. Instead of looking at McAvoy's incredible and layered performance to compliment a screenplay of equal caliber, people were far too busy sneering at the overall concept itself.
Such a shame, at least until the ending, where Split asserts itself to be more than I'd say almost all of its viewing audience ever believed it to be. In that sense, the film should be seen by those who have tried to breathlessly defend Shyamalan and his works, and after years of projects that showed to either be ridiculous or half-baked, he seems to be on a roll with quality films that echo his dominance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By the end of Split, you emerge feeling a renaissance is occurring for the now 46-year-old writer/director in addition with an excitement about his future works and however they may wind up surprising you in due time.