BWW Review: SPLIT is a Tense, Artistic, and Compelling Return to Form for Shyamalan
For my generation, M. Night Shyamalan changed the way that we viewed movies. With the words, "I see dead people," he became one of the most fascinating filmmakers in Hollywood, and, for a five-year period, rode nearly universal critical and box office success to near-superstardom. However, even though 2004's THE VILLAGE did a healthy $257 million at the box office, it was his most critically derided film to that point.
From there, while the box office never actually dried up (his 13 films have grossed $2.9 billion worldwide), his critical and cultural cache surely did. However, whatever credibility that Shyamalan lost with flops like LADY IN THE WATER, THE LAST AIRBENDER, and AFTER EARTH, he has begun to regain with the triumphant return to his roots in SPLIT.
The filmmaker's latest thriller embraces the things that made him so unique in the late-90s and early-2000s; a smaller budget, a simplified story and compelling characters over special effects, and, of course, his trademark unpredictability. While SPLIT doesn't have a "twist" like THE SIXTH SENSE, THE VILLAGE, or even UNBREAKABLE, it certainly keeps the audience off-balance and on the edge of their collective seat from start to finish.
In the film, James McAvoy plays a man suffering with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder. Living inside of him are 23 distinct personalities, each fighting for the opportunity to step into "the light" and take control. When Barry (a Brooklyn fashion designer personality) is overpowered by two others, collectively called "The Horde," they methodically stalk and kidnap two girls. However, the Horde's best laid plan is disrupted by the presence of a third girl, Casey, who becomes their unexpected third prisoner.
The three girls; Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula); wake up to find themselves locked in a dark, dingy dungeon with an out-of-place, beautifully decorated bathroom. As they meet their increasingly bizarre captors, their dire situation comes into even sharper focus. It is then that it becomes clear that Casey has experienced trauma before. While the other two girls hatch desperate escape plans, Casey is logical and under control, thinking rationally about their situation. As she was in last year's THE WITCH, Taylor-Joy is an incredibly potent presence on screen. Despite sharing the screen with one of the world's most versatile actors, in McAvoy, Taylor-Joy more than holds her own.
The beauty of Shyamalan's script is that it allows McAvoy the opportunity to show his talents at every turn. The intricate details which he bestows upon each character make for stark and instantly recognizable differences between the handful of identities that we see most often. Reminiscent of Tatiana Maslany's nuanced approach to the clones on ORPHAN BLACK, McAvoy provides distinct portrayals of the wildly varied personalities, including an obsessive compulsive germophobe, an uptight British woman, a mentally handicapped boy, the aforementioned Barry, and more.
Shyamalan films are at their best when they focus on the micro-level of the individual characters and how they deal with their terrifying situations. They generally go off the rails when they instead become bogged down by outlandish plot machinations and world-building that must be done on the macro-level. There is a refreshing simplicity and economy to SPLIT that amplifies the incredible acting and the film's haunting feel.
Barry, the normally dominant personality, has a standing appointment with psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Tony-winner Betty Buckley. Through years of therapy and treatment, Fletcher feels a kinship to Barry and the other personalities, but she also believes that each individual personality comes with its own unique body chemistry, allowing him to change nearly everything about himself as each new persona takes control.
As it becomes clear that Barry is no longer in control, Fletcher is the only person equipped to save the girls, and all of the other personalities.
In addition to Buckley's legendary stage career, she is a veteran of both Shyamalan films, but horror movies in general. She made her big screen debut in 1976's CARRIE, and appeared in Shyamalan's THE HAPPENING in 2008. Her innate warmth and curiosity immediately endear Fletcher to the audience, and make it clear why Barry and the others trust her implicitly.
In scenes that sometimes are jarring to come in and out of, we learn more about Casey's past through flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative. The younger Casey, played by the adorable Izzie Coffey, is shown learning to hunt with her father (stage and screen favorite Sebastian Arcelus) and uncle (Brad William Henke). These scenes are gripping and revelatory, and serve as far more than just an introduction for Chekhov's gun.
As in his best films, Shyamalan brings a uniquely artistic touch to the look of SPLIT, which makes it stand out from the more cookie-cutter horror and thriller films. Mike Gioulakis adds an interesting perspective to the cinematography, with very specifically framed shots, often employing extreme close-ups on characters' eyes. In a film that beautifully trades on the basest of emotions; fear, survival, desperation; being able to witness it all literally through the character's eyes is extremely valuable.
Much of the talk around SPLIT has surrounded the final scene. While many want to compare it to things that occurred in Shyamalan's previous films, the revelation is unique unto itself, and unlike anything else that we've seen from Night before. That being typed, do yourself a favor and avoid spoilers as much as possible before seeing the movie, especially if you are a longtime fan of the writer/director's work.
Check out the trailer for SPLIT:
SPLIT starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson, and more is open nationwide. SPLIT is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, and behavior, violence and some language.
Banner Image: James McAvoy. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures