★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Shyamalan’s Continued Return to Form, and a Chameleon Turn from James McAvoy.
After spending the better part of the last decade as Hollywood’s favorite punching bag, M. Night Shyalaman brings the scale down and continues to rehabilitate his horror bona fides. 2015’s creepy grandparents movie The Visit was the first sign that the Shamhammer was getting his horror mojo back, but with Split, he is fully back in crafting tense thrillers. He gets a huge boost from a tour-de-force performance by James (Professor X) McAvoy, where he presents no less than nine characters of a split personality, with each persona carrying a different bearing, accent, and demeanor. It is something to behold, particularly when he makes quick personality changes on the fly.
The movie opens with three teenage girls at a party, where Claire (Haly Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) express their frustration and disdain for the awkward and introverted Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy). Claire’s dad gathers the girls to chaperone them home, when he gets drugged and subdued by a stranger, Kevin (McAvoy), who hijacks the car and abducts the three girls. The scene is handled so naturally, and shockingly smoothly that the initial sensation is confusion rather than terror, allowing all three young women to be anesthetized fairly easily.
The girls awake in a makeshift prison, and visited by their captor in the guise of his persona Dennis, an uptight compulsive neat freak. When Dennis tries to assault Marcia, Casey whispers to Marcia to pee herself to make her undesirable. (Hmm… as if Casey has had to pull that stunt herself before!) It worked, and it sets the tone for the relationship of the captured trio. Claire is a natural alpha, used to getting whatever she wants, and wants to team up and get the jump on Kevin, and is the most straightforwardly courageous of the three. Marcia is indecisive, and inclined to do follow Claire’s lead. And, oddball Casey shows an uncanny sense of how to survive this predicament. Kevin returns in various guises and spooks the shit out of the girls, (quite understandably), even when the personalities are rather benign. The dread builds in that you get the feeling that Kevin is capable of much, much worse than he initially reveals. And… guess what… he is.
The movie provides flashbacks to Casey’s youth, which gradually reveals how she came to be able to mentally navigate her current imprisonment. Anna Taylor Joy, in her second great horror film after her turn in The Witch, is able to convey a quiet intelligence, built on the back of abuse and struggle. The other big side story involves Kevin’s relationship with his psychologist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), which allows a good bit of exposition as to Kevin’s condition, and allows McAvoy to chew up the scenery even more. Kevin apparently has 23 separate personas. Eventually, Kevin’s condition gets more heightened, and the girls get more desperate, and eventually we get to a big showdown which Kevin goes full-on channel flipping with his personalities including some very scary ones.
I fully suspect if BlumHouse had released Split in December rather than January, James McAvoy would be up for serious Oscar consideration. Split ran about 15-20 minutes too long, I think, and I probably would have edited out some of the psychologist interaction. I found that Dr. Fletcher’s deep affection for Kevin was rooted in her professional desire to score points with her colleagues proved aggravating, in that she ignored clearly dangerous signs that a psychologist should clearly pick up on. I did appreciate how the two plucky girls didn’t get completely marginalized, once the audience realizes that Casey is the one who is really putting the puzzle together; the other two tried and didn’t become passive victims. So, points for effort.
And, in a wonderful little twist at the end, M. Night comes full circle with a great cameo to suggest that he has created his own little Shyamaverse. Given the fantastic success that Split had at the box office, expect them to continue backing Shyalaman in connecting these threads. No doubt about it… he’s back.
Split is rated PG-13 and is currently playing on HBO. It is also available for purchase on Google, Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, and YouTube.