If you’re an M. Night Shyamalan defender (like myself), then Split’s critical and commercial success has you grinning like James McAvoy’s depiction of 9-year-old Hedwig.
Blumhouse and Shyamalan have delivered two PG-13 twisty jigsaw puzzles of death and delusion. To many, The Visit was Shyamalan’s first return to good graces. And after Split, it would be difficult for even his harshest critics to say he wasn’t officially back. Not that any of this ego-stroking, industry bullshit actually matters. But damn, it feels good to know that we’ll get more movies from M. Night, one of the most iconic filmmakers of the era.
By now, you’ve probably seen one of the terrific trailers cut for Split. So you know that it’s about three young women captured by a man with 23 different identities living and battling inside him. The teens must use their wit and willpower to find their escape before a violent 24th personality emerges.
The story doesn’t pretend to be an accurate portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but it does provide a showcase for McAvoy’s acting prowess as Dennis. Watching his tortured mind transform between identities in a single shot is impressively disturbing. When the girls attempt to appeal to the less harmful personalities that reside within their captor, McAvoy maintains an underlying sense of unease, as if you could blink, and he would become someone else. Even when assuming the persona of a child, there’s a sorrowful mix of menace and innocence behind Dennis’ (or Hedwig’s) eyes.
Going toe to toe with Dennis is Casey, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy who first nabbed the attention of genre fans with The Witch. Taylor-Joy’s haunting doe eyes carry the depth of an old soul, worn down by painful memories. Her performance urges the viewer to keep guessing at what stories are hidden behind them. And it it’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie, so every expository character moment will have significance by the end.
Split fires on all cinematic cylinders. In addition to outstanding performances, the technical elements punctuate Shyamalan’s writing in perfect ways. The film sets the tone early. We are treated to a striking yet simple title sequence accompanied by a score that is best described as monstrous. From within my seat at the theatre, the unease of the Friday night crowd grew along with the dissonant, beastly music growling at us in surround sound. Throughout the film, the camera smartly focuses on the characters, holding long enough to capture transitions in motivation. Their faces tell you more than an insert shot or traditional reverse coverage could. It takes a certain confidence to shoot scenes this way and it pays off in a story driven by characters.
What really struck me about Split is the film’s rich thematic content. Split is a movie for survivors — those who have been through hell and are struggling to find meaning in their suffering. It’s about how we cope with pain, erecting walls to protect ourselves from others. Scars serve as reminders of strength. A horrible past is transformed into a mark of empowerment.
Of course, it’s difficult to have a nuanced discussion about Split without spoilers. You really should just go see it. Revel in McAvoy’s funny-and-oh-my-god-terrifying dance number. Be delighted by M. Night’s cheesy cameo. And come on, you know you want to see that ending for yourself!