Shyamalan made a movie that’s actually good? What a twist!
Split (2016) is a psychological thriller written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man ‘split’ between 23 different personalities who abducts three girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) for an unknown purpose surrounding the emergence of his 24th personality.
To many cinema-goers, Shyamalan has been more of a black stain on movies than shining headline in recent years. While starting off his career being called ‘the next Spielberg’, he’s taken a nosedive into pieces of crap like After Earth, The Happening and even The Last Airbender (retching). But after his previous film The Visit was generally well received (sad to admit I’ve yet to see it), Split began to glimmer ever so slightly with the promise of actually being good. And it is. Sure, it may suffer from many of the typical Shyamalan tropes from overt metaphors, real clunky dialogue and horribly stiff acting, but luckily Split has something going for it that no other film previously had – James freaking McAvoy.
Seriously, McAvoy’s performances as a plethora of different personalities is what turns this movie from a some-what clunky mess into a legitimately entertaining time. He seems to be having so much damn fun being able to act out so many characters at once – from the young Hedwig to the OCD Dennis, McAvoy manages to make around 8 (not every personality is seen in the film) distinct by everything through changing his voice to completely different mannerisms and facial ticks. Its astounding and shows just how amazingly talented the guy is. I cannot overstate how much he makes this movie.
To Shyamalan’s credit however, that’s not the only thing Split has going for it. While not a frequent thriller due to a few lulls in the tension, there are a number of scenes that do a great job to get the heart thumping. Both his somewhat unconventional (albeit bloated) direction and McAvoy’s ability to turn on the menace, I felt myself getting genuinely uneasy at several points, something that I haven’t seen Shyamalan do in a long time. And credit to him. The other solid point is the lead girl in the trio captured Casey, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. While she started off the movie being somewhat blank and off-putting, her arc and the way her performance supports how her character is written is done relatively well, and ensures that there’s at least one person for the audience to root for.
I say one because her co-stars are unfortunately inflicted with the resurgence of the Shyamalan bad-acting curse. I’m not sure if its due to stale direction, the horribly clunky lines they have to say or if they’re just not great actors, but I found Richardson and Sula more painfully annoying than root-worthy. The same can be said for Betty Buckley as Kevin’s doctor Karen. Buckley has actually collaborated with Shyamalan before on The Happening, and unfortunately due to her role almost completely devolving into an exposition dumper, its hard for her to give much of an authentic performance outside of a couple of scenes. You seeing a trend here? Split may be good, but still struggles in the writing department like so many of Shyamalan’s other films. While the overall structure works fine, so much of the dialogue comes off as heavy-handed or simply just fake. It doesn’t permeate through the entire film, but just enough that it was constantly frustrating to me, particularly since I was so desperately wanting to love this movie thanks to McAvoy.
So yes, Split may suffer from shoddy writing, bad acting and some bloated direction like many other of Shyamalan’s movies. But a combination of both McAvoy and what feels like Shyamalan returning to his roots and improving upon his frequent faults means Split is still very much a decently enjoyable movie experience. And hey, if Shyamalan really is back on the rise and is going to be delivering more Sixth Sense’s and Unbreakables’ over (gag) The Last Airbender, I’m all for it.
General Audiences: Recommended
Film Buffs: Recommended