Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running Time: 117 mins
Split is an American film about three girls who are kidnapped by a man living with 23 distinct personalities inside his head, and is preparing as a terrifying 24th is born.
This is the sort of movie that should come to mind when you think of M. Night Shyamalan. Imaginative, strange, dark and fantastically unpredictable, Split is an enthralling, intelligent and surprisingly effective horror thriller throughout, working its weird and nasty magic thanks to strong directing and excellent lead performances.
For me, the great thing about this movie is that it’s actually very simple. Having a main character with 23 different personalities sounds like the recipe for a total mess, but Shyamalan does a brilliant job to streamline the concept and make it coherent for the story at hand.
As a result, we focus on three or four of the the personalities of James McAvoy’s character, but each and every one of them is as effective as there being all 23 in front of you, allowing Split to be a very small and contained movie that often still has the thrills of a much bigger movie.
Of course, McAvoy’s performance is integral in this movie, and he does such a good job at making the concept not only convincing, but full-on realistic. His range across a collection of different characters is brilliant, and the way he transitions between different personalities right before your eyes, to the point where it does start to feel like you’re looking at totally different people, is both brilliant and insanely unnerving.
Alongside McAvoy, there are a couple of other very strong performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy competently plays a surprisingly likable and intelligent character where typical horror idiots normally reign, and Betty Buckley shines in a smaller, but very impacting role that really changes the dynamic of this entire film from what you’d expect it to be.
And that’s what I really loved about Split. Sure, it’s a horror thriller, and there’s mystery, kidnappings, violence and darkness all around, but its greatest moments actually come from the simple dialogue sequences between McAvoy and Buckley’s characters.
Buckley plays the psychiatrist to McAvoy, but takes on a much deeper interest in his case and life, incisively studying him all the while trying to help him find a way out of his dire situation, and yet allow him to keep what she believes is a remarkable ability above a mental illness.
The combination of tension from McAvoy’s side and pure deep intrigue from Buckley’s side make the various conversation scenes between doctor and patient utterly enthralling, and surprisingly the most intense of the entire movie, something I really didn’t expect to see here.
On the flipside, the horror element of Split is pretty good too. Its darkest and most violent moments work brilliantly, and border on being properly scary, as Shyamalan creates a very claustrophobic and unsafe atmosphere in what can only be described as a dilapidated basement, making for some fun thrills along the way as three girls try to evade a relentless force.
In general, I was very impressed with Split, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely free of problems. For one, there’s a small backstory about Taylor-Joy’s character that occasionally takes over for a few moments. Now, apart from featuring the film’s most haunting moment, the backstory doesn’t really serve much emotional or dramatic power in the story, and only works as a plot device to make certain twists make sense.
Also, there are times when the film goes a little overboard and becomes a little too silly for its own good. The concept at hand is very imaginative and very interesting, but some of the directions that the film takes, particularly in the final act, are just a little too much even for a Shyamalan film, and although the moments of silliness are brief, they really take away from the intense pace and thrills that the movie is trying to make, which was a little disappointing to see.
Of course, I’m being very vague about a lot of the plot because it’s a Shyamalan movie, but in the case of Split, there isn’t really any master twist that stunned me. Maybe it’s something that will be understood at a later date, or maybe that’s not what Shyamalan was going for, but I think it’s best to know that you’re not in for a movie completely typical of the director.
Overall, however, I was very engrossed by Split. It works brilliantly as an unnerving drama, succeeding in establishing dark and intriguing characters played brilliantly by the lead actors, and although its main thriller story isn’t quite as heart-stopping as I’d like, it’s still a fun watch throughout, populated by a few stunning moments that make Split worth the watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.