4 out of 5
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
The M. Night resurgence continues, although that we start to drift back, stylistically, to earlier efforts might make one worry that the rise and fall cycle will repeat again. But that has no direct bearing on “Split,” which is another paced, contemplative flick (a la Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) that uses an ordeal to trace the genesis of a shift in perspective, or behavior. There’s the on-the-nose representation of this, via McAvoy’s Kevin, whose 23 split personalities vie for primacy in Kev’s brain, but then there’s also the more nuanced evolutions of the girls Kevin (or one of his personalities) kidnaps, especially Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the quiet teen to Marcia’s and Claire’s (Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson) more ‘typical’ phone / gossip obsessed personalities.
Why have they been kidnapped? That, in part, is what Split is working on telling us, bit by bit, ominous detail by detail. But we’re also curious about Kevin’s condition. While the flick has been rightfully criticized for sticking to high drama movie / TV approach toward split personalities / dissociative identity disorder, part of Shyamalan’s style – and skill, as an immersive filmmaker – is to just go all-in with an idea. So while the universe of Split is also skeptical of the nature of Kev’s affliction, from our perspective (and his therapist’s, Dr. Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley, from whom we glean some of Kevin’s background) there is no question, and I think even if trying to guess the ‘Shyamalan twist’ of the film (though not a recommended way to watch it), the idea that Kevin is faking or embellishing is low on that list of guesses.
Not hemmed in by The Visit’s first person point of view, Shyamalan can revert back to his longing camera gazes and careful focus pulls, but that’s not to sell the visuals short: Although Split is mostly confined to a few rooms (in which the girls are kept; in which Kevin does whatever he does), the geography of the space is consistent and the rooms feel very “real”. So when we are let loose into the lush therapist’s office or running around tunnels for inevitable escape attempts, the breaks and return to confinement are effective. There’s been some rumblings about visual exploitation of the girls, but I felt this was actually very professionally handled; the skin that’s shown makes sense, character-wise – although you could certainly argue that there were plenty of ways around that – and I at no point felt like Shyamalan was purposefully keeping our eyes on the girls in a voyeuristic sense. Instead, it seemed that McAvoy was carefully utilized in those scenes to keep the focus moving.
Speaking of whom, the movie obviously would not work without someone bringing the various personalities to life, and the attention the actor has received for the role is well deserved. While we don’t see all of Kevin’s personalities, we do see several of them, and without resorting to overly obvious affectations beyond how he stands, or his tone, or the looks he gives, McAvoy makes each personality distinct, and effective in whatever way that persona’s key traits are meant to be.
The movie runs a bit long, but it still milks an incredible amount of suspense from a small cast and a few sets, all while remaining consistent to its own logics and characters. Because, stylistically, this is somewhat of a return-to-form for Shyamalan, it’s not quite the surprise The Visit was (for me), but that’s… fine. It’s such a rarity to have a director crawl back from a lengthy string of derided films to recapture our approvals once, not to mention twice, so it’s amusing to see him stick to his guns and work in a format he’s comfortable with, verily reminding us that nothing has actually changed.
…Which in turn means we get a thrilling movie, compelling visuals, and precise and intense acting.