I walked into M. Night Shyamalan’s Split with my eyes open. I expected this to be a dumb, trashy little film from a writer-director who passed his prime well over a decade ago. I wasn’t wrong about the trash factor, but this movie’s nowhere near as dumb as it might seem at first glance. It would be easy to call this a return to form for Shyamalan, but also inaccurate; I can’t think of anything in the director’s output that seems so free from pretension and self-importance, and I certainly can’t remember the last time I had so much fun at one of his films.
Reuniting with producer Jason Blum (following last year’s The Visit) for another dose of the Blumhouse-brand of stripped-down horror, Shyamalan’s film is as much a psychological thriller as it is a horror film. As such, its premise is a predictably trite damsel-in-distress setup. But the film accomplishes a surprising amount of depth within its limited financial and narrative constraints — and while I would never go so far as to call it a “deep” picture, it goes well beyond what might reasonably have been expected of the material.
The film is tightly paced and carefully structured, its major plot points and character details revealed sparingly and in due course. Its narrative revolves around Kevin (James McAvoy) a man suffering from severe case of dissociative identity disorder, whose twenty-three existing personalities are engaged in a psychic civil war prompted by the emergence of a monstrous twenty-fourth. Kevin, in the persona of hyper-disciplined Dennis, kidnaps three high-school girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) to serve as “sacred food” for this emergent identity, known only as “The Beast.” Yes, the plot is pure pulp — but I’ll be damned if it didn’t suck me in anyway.
Split owes the vast majority of its success to McAvoy, whose portrayal of Kevin is as terrifying as it is hilarious. The film would literally have fallen apart had McAvoy less competently managed the herculean task laid out for him, but he navigates the tonal shift necessitated by his character with admirable temerity. His supporting cast help him in raising the bar, with Taylor-Joy continuing to impress as our troubled teen protagonist and Betty Buckley gamely shouldering the expositional burden her role as Kevin’s long-suffering therapist.
My initial trepidation about Split was due not only to Shyamalan’s involvement, but also to the film’s PG-13 rating — typically the death knell precluding any seriously scary cinema. But when I screened the movie with a packed house full of tweens and teens, I found myself subversively satisfied that their parents had misjudged the film’s content on the basis of its rating. True, there’s no nudity and only one shot containing anything resembling gore, but the psychological landscape Shyamalan renders is anything but youth-friendly.
There is a slight twist-ending — come on, you didn’t think Shyamalan had grown up that much, did you? — but it’s largely extraneous to the plot and contributes very little to the film’s overall effectiveness. Had this movie come from a first-time writer-director, I would have hailed it as an effective little piece of genre filmmaking. But coming from Shyamalan, it seems almost like a miraculous resurrection from the grave of big-budget mediocrity, snatching victory from the jaws of such egregious defeats as The Last Airbender and After Earth. When a friend heard that I would be recommending the film, he expressed some considerable disbelief — as well as an interest in seeing it. No one was more shocked than I was when I heard myself saying, “I’d see it again.” Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.
Now Playing at Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville.