Without a doubt, M. Night Shyamalan has had one of the most interesting careers of any director working today. After showing brilliant potential with his first three films The Sixth Sense, Unbrekable, and Signs, he soon stooped into self indulgent and ridiculous films that lost him his credibility. Is Split Shyamalan’s comeback? Sort of. It’s not on the level of his first three films, but Split is an extremely competent and enthralling film, and one that takes bold chances that most directors couldn’t pull off.
Casey Cook (Anya Taylor Joy) is a teenage outsider who’s abducted alongside two other girls by a mysterious man named Kevin (James McAvoy), who brings them to a secluded underground facility where he keeps them captive. While attempting to reason with her captor, Casey realizes that her enigmatic kidnapper has multiple personalities that reside in his body, all vying for control. As Kevin attempts to stop his personalities from conspiring to create a being of unimaginable power, Casey must find an escape route before it’s too late.
There are logical fallacies for sure, and while M. Night Shyamalan doesn’t answer every single question, he does a great job at making the film consistently watchable. Each scene, including some important flashbacks, furthers a narrative that keeps the audience simultaneously invested in the concept of the personalities as well as Casey’s personal journey. Shyamalan creates some of the more intense sequences of his career, as out genuine concern for Casey makes the threat real. The strong direction overpowers the dialogue, which at points feel exposition heavy and stilted.
Without a doubt, James McAvoy gives the bravest and best performance of his career, transforming himself for each personality and giving each its due conviction. The film hinders on whether or not McAvoy’s character is compelling; not only does he need to be sinister and informative, but we grow to genuinely care for his character. Although the remaining cast is mostly given little to do, Anya Taylor Joy is fantastic, an interesting and subdued, damaged character that’s far away from the scream queens seen in many horror films.
While there’s so much of Split that is based on convenience, Shyamalan also makes some incredibly brave decisions. Without any spoilers, the subject matter he chooses to tackle later in the film is handled with unflinching brutality and terrifying impact. It’s not safe in any sense of what we would expect from a studio production, and not only is the material treated with great respect, but it’s a genuinely disturbing, and at points moving, depiction.
If that weren’t enough, Shyamalan leaves the audience with a killer twist. While many of the early plot developments may have left something to be desired, the final moments of the film are jaw dropping, both in how clever it is and just how well it was kept secret. This is the Shyamalan that we’ve been missing; the confident, subversive stylist who trusts his audience to connect dots, intellectually engaging with his audience without becoming self indulgent. Grade: B