Split is the new film by M. Night Shyamalan, and the filmmaker’s second attempt to re-establish his street cred after 2015’s modestly successful The Visit. From the trailers, this certainly looked like a return to the director’s roots. It had a unique premise with just the right amount of eeriness that promised to blend old school horror tricks with some unexpected twists. But this is January. And for the past 12 years, M. Night’s film quality has steadily declined from 2004’s underwhelming The Village to 2013’s abysmal After Earth. So the question still remained whether this would be a pleasant surprise or just another forgettable studio dump. Well, I am proud to say that not only is Split the best film M. Night has made since Unbreakable (over 16 years ago), it is an expertly crafted, brilliantly executed scare fest that fully reminds us why we loved Shyamalan in the first place. It may not make Avatar fans forgive him for The Last Airbender, but the filmmaker is back in the best form he’s been since the late 90s.
The film opens at Claire (Haley Lu Richardson)’s birthday party. Her father is about to drive her and her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) home when they notice that Casey (Anya Taylor_Joy), who was invited out of sympathy, is still waiting for a ride. Claire’s father (Neal Huff) offers to take all three of them home, but before they can drive off, the father is knocked unconscious and the girls abducted by Kevin (James McAvoy). Locked up in a room and desperately trying to find a way to escape, Split sounds like your typical horror movie scenario, until you realize that Kevin suffers from a special disorder wherein his body is inhabited by 23 different personalities. Every time he enters the room, his name and demeanour are different, and the girls try to discover which personality they can convince to let them out safely.
Shyamalan’s earlier films like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs benefitted from carefully composed shots combined with slow burn pacing and big payoffs, culminating in a third act twist ending. Split is no different. The film takes its time getting to know the young girls, but it also focuses quite a bit on Kevin’s relationship with Doctor Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is fully aware of his split personalities and has been trying to help him find some kind of balance. Not all of Kevin’s personalities are evil; in fact, Kevin himself is a good natured person. But his dominant – err, more powerful – personalities namely Patricia, Hedwig, and Dennis have very sinister motivations, and are able to suppress the other personalities from taking over Kevin’s body. They have also discovered a 24th personality known as The Beast, and their collective goal is to unleash and allow The Beast to permanently assume Kevin’s body.
To discuss any more about the film’s themes, character studies, or narrative devices would certainly spoil the experience, thus making Split a hard film to analyze in a simple review. Much of what makes it such a stand out thriller is in its third act revelations and last scene plot twist. Shyamalan built his name on twist endings, and Split has the most satisfying one since The Sixth Sense. Yes, you heard that right. It’s more of a reveal of information that had been carefully hidden throughout. But just like The Sixth Sense, once you know the reveal, it re-contextualizes the events in the film, changing how you watch it a second time.
From a filmmaking perspective, everything is excellent. With a smaller budget, Shyamalan is able to keep his narrative focused. With limited control, he is able to exert more creativity in executing sequences. He does away with jump scares, favouring instead to angle the shot in a way that will either reveal or conceal information. This technique is used to particularly creepy effect when the girls are trying to hide from Kevin, but can’t find him. Shyamalan still remembers how to utilize darkness effectively, and with the help of cinematographer Michael Gioulakis, he successfully pulls off some fantastic scares that don’t rely on loud noises or sudden shrieks of music.
Bottom line, Split sets the bar pretty high for 2017. There were only a handful of movies in 2016 that got me excited for potentially more sequels, but I’m more excited to see Split 2 (should they make it) than anything else right now. I loved this movie, and to M. Night Shyamalan I say, “Welcome back!”