After making a few egregious stinkers in The Happening and The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan is again demonstrating all the formal prowess that made The Sixth Sense and Signs so great. His new thriller, Split, about dissociative identity disorder (commonly known as multiple or split personality disorder), has more unabashed B-movie appeal than any of his previous films. It’s a hoot, occasionally clunky at exposition, but exceptional in terms of filmmaking and performance.
In the masterful first scene, a bespectacled man (James McAvoy) quietly kidnaps three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from The Witch, which Shyamalan must’ve loved for its formal control), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sulu), in the middle of a restaurant parking lot in daytime. When the girls awake in a locked basement room, they learn that the man who kidnapped them suffers from dissociative identity disorder. At one point he’s a fastidious man with glasses known as Dennis. Another, he’s a chillingly serene British lady named Patricia. At other points, he’s a precocious boy with a lisp named Hedwig.
All these personalities are facets of Kevin, the individual who’s physically present in all these scenes, but never mentally there. James McAvoy plays all his personalities with such zeal that you wish you’d get to see all the 23 personalities Kevin purportedly possesses. It’s almost a shame he doesn’t appear in every scene. He also sells the conceit; for a film about something as potentially ludicrous as multiple personality disorder, McAvoy makes it remarkably convincing.
Fascinatingly, Split shares equal screen time between Kevin and Casey, drawing parallels between their own experiences of childhood trauma and their identities as outsiders. While Split fits more easily into the B-movie domain—it is produced by Jason Blum, of Paranormal Activity fame—it still bears the overwhelming sadness essential to a Shyamalan film. If Shyamalan’s primary characteristic as a director is his rigorous visual style, his profound sympathy for his characters has to be a close second.
Speaking of visual style, Split is more gorgeous than Shyamalan’s previous films. Again his mastery of off-screen space is evident throughout. This is especially important whenever Kevin’s personalities are struggling against each other. Often, his voices are heard off screen and it’s unclear which identity is going to come through the door to torment the girls. Shyamalan mines that tension for all its worth. Mike Gioulakis, who shot It Follows, also shot Split, and it’s as if Shyamalan borrows some of that film’s visual vocabulary, from its rich colours, saturated images, and oscillation between extremely narrow and deep focal lengths. Shyamalan has made some gorgeous films in the past, but as evident in the amazing opening, Split might be his prettiest yet.
The film only falters when Shyamalan gives into one of his basest instincts, namely: exposition. Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), seemingly exists only to explain away the themes and theories that prop up much of the narrative. Her sort of character is common to films about psychopaths–remember the psychologist at the end of Psycho–but her extensive screen time breaks the film’s rhythm. Casey’s and Kevin’s personalities are so fascinating that any time not spent with them seems a wasted opportunity. At least the ending of the film clarifies the presence of the character and justifies a lot of the theoretical mumbo-jumbo she spews through much of the runtime.
Split is Shyamalan’s best film since The Village, maybe even Signs. Even when it stumbles over itself with convoluted exposition, it’s formally inventive and boasts thrilling performances. It’s a raucous B-movie made by a master of suspense.
7 out of 10
Split (2017, USA)
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sulu, Sebastian Arcelus, Brad William Henke.