Oh, what a career M. Night Shyamalan has had. After a few tiny films, he released three knockouts in a row in the form of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. All great films in their own right, his work quickly began its downward spiral into mediocrity, starting with The Village and Lady in the Water. Following those films, we were introduced to modern Shyamalan, that is, The Happening (an extremely guilty pleasure of mine) and The Last Airbender Shyamalan. This is the Shyamalan I’m sure most of us are familiar with and why we tend to run for the hills at the sheer mention of his name. After Earth appeared to solidify the fact that Shyamalan’s days of making good films were over.
And now there’s Split.
First, the plot: a trio of young girls, headlined by Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), are drugged and kidnapped by a mysterious man (James McAvoy) and locked in a basement. Soon enough, they discover that Kevin, the man who has kidnapped them, has multiple personality disorder, each of which attempts to interact with them. One personality is the one who kidnapped them, Dennis. He’s sort of the head honcho running in charge of the other personalities. He’s a bit of a pervert and has OCD. Another is an elderly British woman, an impressionable 9-year old boy who is an avid Kanye West fan, and a quirky fashion designer. It’s stated multiple times that Kevin actually has 23 individual personalities, but we mainly deal with just these four. The reason for the girls kidnapping remains a mystery. They are given the ominous explanation that they are there for “the Beast,” but no one knows exactly what that means. As expected, shenanigans ensue.
I’m finding it difficult to classify Split as a “good” movie, at least in the traditional sense. For a horror film, it isn’t particularly scary, there are some stilted performances here and there, and there is a child abuse subplot that borders on tasteless. Hell, Split’s central hook, the ability for someone with multiple personality disorder to change their fucking body chemistry, is utterly ridiculous. As a whole, Split is pretty stupid.
But it’s the right kind of stupid.
Split is schlock in its purest form. Shyamalan, and by extension the film, is aware of how dumb this premise is, which allows for him to have a ton of fun with it. The tropes that define the “girls locked in a space and have to attempt to escape” are fairly tried and true, but the added element of MPD allows Shyamalan to keep these tropes from feeling stale.
McAvoy is the key to this film’s success. He’s the reason it’s so damn entertaining instead of vexatious exploitation of mental illness. McAvoy gives a very…big performance, engaging in extensive scenery chewing. McAvoy succeeds in making every one of the personalities feel distinct from one another. Seamlessly McAvoy is able to turn his performance on a dime, transitioning from a caricature of a small child to the intimidating Dennis in seconds. McAvoy’s performance is seriously impressive and acts as the glue that holds this absurd film together. Once Split hits its third act, McAvoy goes absolutely nuts. It’s great.
Anya Taylor-Joy turns in a solid performance as well, playing the lead kidnapped Casey. Casey interacts with Kevin the most, as she manipulates Kevin’s multiple personalities in an attempt to escape. Following a fantastic performance in The Witch, Taylor-Joy’s role in Split is equally enjoyable. Although there is an abuse subplot that runs through the film that involves her character that I’d say drags the film down. Unlike the film’s portrayal of mental illness, this subplot does feel tasteless and exploitative, and the way it ends up tying into the core story of the film frankly feels hackneyed.
The other two girls trapped alongside Taylor-Joy don’t really get a lot to do outside of being scared, so there’s not much to comment on there. One other subplot involving Kevin and his therapist runs throughout the film and often times his therapist’s line readings come out sounding very wooden. There are scenes between them that are genuinely enjoyable and intriguing, it’s just so inconsistent.
Split is far from perfect, but it makes no apologies for that fact. Shyamalan has hit his stride once more, proving that he can still crank out great schlock films. If you can buy into its self-admitted absurd premise, then there’s a lot of fun to be had here.
In regards to the twist that is being talked about so much online (which I won’t spoil): yes, it is extremely unexpected and comes completely out-of-left-fucking-field, but it doesn’t do anything particularly interesting for Split. Rather, it has some deeply interesting implications for a potential sequel. I’m very curious as to whether Shyamalan will actually follow up on it or not.