After pulling his career out of a tailspin with the much-better-than-expected horror movie The Visit in 2015, audiences worldwide were once again interested in M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker. The Visit had seemed to reignite some of the fire and ingenuity that the acclaimed writer-director had in his early efforts like The Sixth Sense and Signs. It certainly went a long way to banishing thoughts of his career doldrums, namely the ill-advised The Last Airbender adaptation and the absolutely laughable The Happening. But what would this maverick creator come up with next?
Well, on January 20th, Shyamalan's newest horror-thriller Split was released. Starring James McAvoy, the movie is about a man named Kevin, who has Dissociative Identity Disorder. This means that Kevin has 23 completely separate and distinct personalities within him.At the outset of the film one of the personalities (Dennis) abducts three teenage girls and keeps them captive. As the film progresses, we find out that a 24th personality is emerging, and it just might be even more dangerous than all of the others.
That's a pretty cool setup for a movie, we have to say. And with an actor the calibre of James McAvoy involved, it's no wonder that audiences have been anticipating this one. The opening weekend box office takings certainly suggest Shyamalan has rediscovered the ability to make a hit movie that gets people talking. But does the movie live up to the potential of its premise? The answer to that is a resounding yes.
Firstly, the acting in the movie has to be praised, especially McAvoy and Anya-Taylor Joy as Casey, the de facto leader of the trio of abducted girls. McAvoy's work is simply astounding. He brings so much to each of the personalities we see him convey on screen. Each one has distinct physical and behavioural characteristics that separate them from any of the others. McAvoy even rifles through different personalities in the one scene at times. It's a truly magical and dizzying acting display. He is compassionate, caring, mischeivous, funny, intimidating and downright malevolent throughout the course of the film, and it's a joy to behold.
Taylor-Joy is a very strong female lead, and she copes well opposite McAvoy's bravura performance. She was similarly top notch in 2016's low-budget horror drama The Witch, and her performance here should see her shoot to the top of many casting director's lists. She believably sells her fear and shock at all times, but also a core strength that comes through. Shyamalan tells her character's story with as much mystery as McAvoy's, as flashbacks throughout the film give us unsettling glimpses into her past.
Credit is also due to Betty Buckley, who plays McAvoy's psychiatrist Dr Karen Fletcher. Her character serves an excellent function in the story, as she is able to tell the audience about the specifics of Kevin's disorder. She also gives McAvoy someone to talk to and bounce off in their therapy scenes, which sometimes play as mental cat-and-mouse games between the two. But crucially, she is also a warm and caring character. She clearly wants to help Kevin and believes she has the tools to do so. This makes her so much more than a standard plot device character.
If forced to pick some flaws in the film, it could be said that the other two abducted girls don't really add much. They are mainly there to be menaced by McAvoy. But this criticism doesn't detract from the overall experience.
The movie also goes to some strange places, in a story sense, and asks the audience to suspend their disbelief quite a bit, especially towards the end. But it's difficult to talk about this without getting into spoiler territory, so....
....here it is.
It's extremely fitting that M. Night Shyamalan, who has never made a sequel to any of his movies in the past, has now made one in secret. Split, you see, actually takes place in the same fictional universe as Unbreakable, his 2000 mystery drama starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson!
And the connection isn't some mere subtle hint or a simple music cue from the first film. Oh no! Willis himself actually appears in the final scene of the film as David Dunn, the invincible security guard turned superhero! For any fans of Unbreakable, which has gained a significant cult following since it's release, this reveal will be insanely exciting. It should have plenty of people 'fanboying out' in the cinema. The best part, though, is that it completely reframes the entire film that the audience has just been watching. It makes all the narrative leaps make perfect sense.
Unbreakable was a superhero origin story in disguise. At the outset of that film, audiences had no idea they were about to watch Bruce Willis slowly discover he has superpowers, leading to him saving two children's lives during the finale.
Split, therefore, is a supervillain origin story in disguise. Audiences thought they were getting a scary horror-thriller. For the most part, they were. But as the film progresses and more is revealed about Kevin's 24th personality ('The Beast'), the more outlandish the film becomes. Kevin is able to change his physiology with each personality. The Beast even has enhanced abilities. He can crawl up walls, has increased strength and can take shotgun blasts to the chest and somehow not die. Some audience members might be unable to reconcile this with the grounded thriller they had been watching. But the reveal that it is actually the origin story of the supervillain 'The Horde' should make everything fall into place.
In Conclusion of Split
This is brave, singular filmmaking from Shyamalan. We feel it's to be applauded. He has said for years that he always envisioned Unbreakable as a trilogy, but the sequels just never materialised. The fact that we now have a sequel (or, at the very least, a side-quel) is exciting, and we can't wait to see what Shyamalan comes up with for the (presumably) concluding part of the trilogy. He says he already has an outline written. It pits Willis' David Dunn against McAvoy's The Horde. We're hopeful that Taylor-Joy's Casey will return, and that Samuel L. Jackson's villainous Mr Glass will make an appearance too.
So, there you have it. You go in expecting a visceral horror-thriller, you leave with a second installment of a widening superhero cinematic universe.
Welcome back, M. Night. We've missed you.
Rating - 9/10
Split is a supervillain origin story in disguise. Audiences thought they were getting a scary horror-thriller. Brilliant.