M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ is sometimes goofy, sometimes thrilling, but always engaging

"Split" | Universal Pictures Grade: B+
Universal Pictures/Blumhouse/Courtesy
"Split" | Universal Pictures
Grade: B+

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Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has had a rocky career, to say the least. He’s been called “the next Spielberg,” and is the man behind the classic “The Sixth Sense” as well as one of the best comic book movies of all time, “Unbreakable.” But Shyamalan went on to make films like “The Last Airbender,” which Roger Ebert described as an “agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented.” In a word, his career has been split (you may stop reading this now) between genius works and crushing lows. The good news is that Shyamalan has been on the rise since last year’s “The Visit.” His comeback continues with “Split,” a fun thriller that affirms Shyamalan’s return to form.

In “Split,” Kevin (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder, kidnaps three teenage girls, imprisoning them in a subterranean complex. The catch, though, is that it wasn’t really Kevin who kidnapped the girls. It was Dennis, one of 23 identities residing within Kevin, who wages an internal battle between the other identities for control of Kevin. Meanwhile, Dennis prophesies the emergence of a terrifying 24th identity.

Anya Taylor-Joy, fresh off her breakthrough performance in “The Witch,” plays Casey, one of the kidnapped teenagers. Casey is the most logical and collected of the three teens, and pulling off this sense of subdued calm could have easily translated to a stale performance from Taylor-Joy. Yet she gives Casey a sense of vulnerability that adds nuance to her calmness. We feel that she is as terrified as the others, but is headstrong in spite of it.

Though Taylor-Joy is thrilling to watch, the film’s greatest narrative flaw centers around her character. Casey’s backstory is relayed through flashbacks, and like her captor, she has suffered from a traumatic past. Yet we never see the resolution to her past trauma. The film’s finale attempts to draw parallels to her past, but the parallel isn’t established to its full extent. In this sense, Casey has an arc, but it ends before it should.

Taylor-Joy certainly isn’t the only actor to turn in a great performance. James McAvoy maneuvers Kevin’s identities flawlessly and seamlessly. Each persona is distinct, whether it’s the posh, British lilt of Patricia or the childish lisp of Hedwig. Though each identity wears a unique outfit, McAvoy’s performance allows us to recognize a specific one through facial expressions and mannerisms alone. Additionally, McAvoy is consistently framed in close-ups, which familiarizes the audience with each of his identities. When each identity is so distinct, it becomes easier to accept that each one has a unique personality, especially when they rebel against each other, or join forces.

The dissociative identity disorder McAvoy portrays raises the question: Is it fair for Shyamalan to appropriate a mental illness for a fictional film? “Split” attempts to answer that question by hyperbolizing its real life premise so it edges toward science fiction. This isn’t meant to be a particularly enlightening take on mental illnesses, but is rather a film like “Jurassic Park” which involves a little science but a lot of fiction. Despite the obvious fictionalization of the premise, it is worrisome that the film risks perpetuating the stigma around mental illnesses and treating those with them as “others.” In any case, the film doesn’t really vilify Kevin. His psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) doesn’t blame him for his deeds and often offers constructive solutions for dealing with Dennis’ dangerous tendencies. The film also makes it clear that only Dennis, not Kevin himself, is actually dangerous. In this sense, “Split” is aware of its potential controversy, but makes an earnest effort to address it without sacrificing any of the film’s thrills.

Controversy aside, the film never takes itself too seriously, and is quick to undercut suspense in exchange for a chuckle. An unsettling dinner scene is made humorous through a line spoken with the utmost sincerity by McAvoy, “I’ve heard that Asian music can aid digestion.” Other notable moments include a well-timed Kanye West reference and a zany dance scene (it rivals Oscar Isaac’s disco dance-off in “Ex Machina” for sheer WTF-factor), all of which lend “Split” a sense of goofiness that works surprisingly well with its psychological-thriller trappings.  

We expect a solid thriller from Shyamalan, but we certainly know that is not all we’re going to get. Shyamalan loves a twist ending, and “Split” is no exception. The film sets up a twist early on, and this sense of buildup keeps the audience invested. Shyamalan doesn’t do anything fancy, letting us think we have the twist figured out. The finale plays out as we expect it would, but along the way, Shyamalan drops a piece of information that, while guaranteed to be polarizing, is absolutely jaw-dropping.

“Split” is thoroughly enjoyable, and proves that Shyamalan is a capable filmmaker. After years of derision, Shyamalan seems to have found his niche in making low-budget thrillers (“The Visit” and “Split” had $5 million budgets, as opposed to “After Earth’s” $130 million budget). It wouldn’t be such a bad thing if he continued to explore other stories within this niche, especially if they’re as fun as “Split.”

Harrison Tunggal covers film. Contact him at [email protected].