By Jack Dignan
2015's The Visit wasn't a perfect film. However, what it was was a step in the right direction for director M. Night Shyamalan, whose filmography started strong with hits such as The Sixth Sense and Signs. What followed was his downfall, delivering several abominations against cinema, but finally, it seems he's back to his former glory. If The Visit showed that he was starting to make a comeback, his new film Split proves it. Welcome home, Shyamalan. Welcome home.
Split tells the story of a young, antisocial teenager named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). When getting a lift home with two of her classmates, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), a stranger comes into their car... A stranger who ends up kidnapping them and trapping them in a secure, yet well maintained bunker in an unknown location. This stranger is known as Kevin (James McAvoy), although Kevin is just one of his 23 personalities. While being held hostage, the girls come face to face with several of them, some friends and some foes, an even more sinister personality threatening to come to the surface. This personality is 'The Beast,' and if The Beast arrives, things aren't looking too good for them.
While most thrillers take their time in setting up character and story, Split kicks right into things. Opening with the actual kidnapping, there's no messing about, and that was a surprise for a film two hours in length. It simultaneously had me eager and worried. Would there be enough story to tell? Will it fail to deliver? Or does Shyamalan know what he's doing? Thankfully, it's the latter, as what follows the shocking and abrupt opening is a thriller that works.
All of the unrealistic aspects aside, Split takes the basic kidnapping thriller formula we've seen before and adds something unique to the table. The plot, at its basics, has been seen before, but the addition of a villain with split personalities adds extra dimension to this story. It goes from your run of the mill thriller to something a little more tense, exciting and original. There's a lot more flavour to it, and Shyamalan has a lot to work with. The personalities conflict with one another, leaving you unaware of which ones to trust, if there even are any.
Leading the pack is James McAvoy, who delivers a performance so haunting and chilling that it'll be hard to get him out of your head upon completion of the movie. The character he plays is a rather complicated one, to say the least, yet McAvoy gives it everything he's got. Each personality has their own set of motives, origins and problems, and he nails all of them. It's a performance that really goes to show just how dynamic and versatile he is as an actor, never dropping his a-game and even managing to bring some dark humour into the mix. He is, without a doubt in my mind, miraculous, and this might just be his best performance yet.
Little is known about him at first, his creepy antics merely looming and posing as a potentially violent threat, but as the runtime flies on by, we learn a lot about him, especially through his relationship with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Her character is there for no other reason than to provide information about Kevin to the audience, and I guess to let Kevin's personalities explain themselves, but it does this is an interesting way. A time consuming way, for sure, but a worthwhile one, and by the time we get to the spine tingling third act, her sub-plot becomes a little more relevant. It's executed to mixed, pace-crippling results, but better that than leaving her out of the picture entirely.
The problem is, Split never really knows who to make the main character. It sets up Casey as the protagonist, her backstory delivered through flashbacks, but it doesn't follow through with that. It simultaneously tries to make Kevin the protagonist, and he receives just as much, if not more screen-time than Casey does. When this first became apparent, I didn't mind. It takes a while before I was able to connect with Casey, which is not in any way Anya Taylor-Joy's fault as she gives another great performance following last year's The Witch. It's just that she doesn't start out as a compelling character. She has to grow on you, but by the time she does, Kevin is, in a way, the main character.
For as entertaining, suspenseful and fun as this film is, it manages to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings, and while Split's technical conclusion isn't necessarily a twist but more of an explanation, what follows is just baaaad. I'm not going to spoil anything, do not worry, but once the film has come to a close and everything seems to have wrapped up, an extra scene is played, and it's one that's not needed, out of place and laughably bad. I want to say it's a disappointing ending, but the ending itself is far from it. It's the tacked on extra scene that didn't need to be there, but unfortunately it is. It might work for some people, but for me and a lot of other people at the screening, it didn't.
To sum up, Split is a twisted psychological thriller that puts a new spin on the classic kidnapping story. With a haunting performance from James McAvoy and a sophisticated, suspenseful plot, it's not the most pleasant movie to watch it, but it sure is entertaining.
3 1/2 Stars
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