Just when you thought it wasn’t safe to watch an M. Night Shyamalan film again, he goes and throws Split right in your lap. Actually, that’s perhaps a little unfair. The Visit last year was perfectly good and an undeniable return to a level of form that Shyamalan hadn’t reached for over a decade, even if it couldn’t match the skill and reach of his first two pictures. Split does – almost. It’s close. It’s probably the third best movie he’s ever done, which on the one hand isn’t saying much, and on the other a compliment, as The Sixth Sense and especially Unbreakable are two of the best films of the last twenty years. Split, for once, doesn’t see Shyamalan get lost inside his own hagiographic view of Pennsylvania and the tricksy, cod-supernatural movies he’s built a career on making. This time the trick isn’t a trick at all, but rather a deftly written psychological character drama primarily with substance, payoff and, damn it, one of the most jaw-dropping final scenes in quite a while.
A great deal of why Split works isn’t down to Shyamalan at all though, it’s down to James McAvoy. He’s had an interesting career – he’s done some duff blockbuster fare, plenty of earnest drama, and front-lined one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, but he’s never quite become the megastar Fassbender has or Lawrence. If anything proves he should be, it’s his magnificent performance in Split; indeed ‘performance’ is disingenuous – ‘performances’ would be more accurate. McAvoy plays a Russian doll of a character, layers upon layers, people upon people, as the kidnapper of three high school girls who steadily unwraps a series of split personalities unlike anything before seen.
McAvoy plays an array of characters here; a fastidious abductor; a mercurial, lisping nine year old and a poised & classy middle aged woman, and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s a remarkable, chameleonic performance which Shyamalan’s script unfurls alongside the many themes his story touches upon – personality disorder, child abuse, the power of human thought – and if by the end McAvoy is forced to give way to monstrous melodrama, it’s hard to argue it hasn’t been earned. The climactic struggle feels like a logical payoff to an, admittedly, far-fetched concept, but one Shyamalan just about manages to get away with. The other reason he does is Anya Taylor-Joy.
While it’s three girls who are abducted, the story only really is about Taylor-Joy’s Casey, a teenage outcast at school who is captured alongside two ‘normal’, popular girls who proceed to play up to the kidnapped girl stereotypes which Shyamalan is keen to invert with Casey. She’s a broken girl who doesn’t fit in the real world and tries to manipulate McAvoy’s powerful fractured personas to survive the one she’s thrown into, and while Taylor-Joy’s performance is very reactive, it’s also powerfully restrained and layered. Shyamalan finds, through at times disturbing flashbacks to her childhood, a parity between Casey and her abductor which allows her to find a manner of understanding her predicament, even if she’s never warped by it.
It’s thanks to Casey that Shyamalan avoids the whiff of exploitation surrounding his treatment of the other two girls – their degradation is part of the story, part of the point and the psychological motivation behind their abduction. The only main thread which threatens to undo everything is the alternate exploration of McAvoy by Betty Buckley’s celebrated psychiatrist; she is his constant, taken by him through professional curiosity, who allows the audience some key detail about the D.I.D condition McAvoy has, but Shyamalan at times gives way to ponderous philosophising through Buckley’s character – the mid-section sometimes seems to forget it’s a psychological horror thriller at times, before recovering for a riveting final third.
Of course, the first question anyone has going into an M. Night Shyamalan film is “does it have a twist?”. He’s a director who’s made a rod for his own back, damned if he delivers one and damned if he doesn’t. Split, to its credit, doesn’t do what you think. It gives you something anyone who’s been a fan of his films will absolutely love at the end, something that leaves you stunned (even if there’s a musical clue at one point), but nothing that changes the context or skill of the preceding hour and half or so. It’s for one a Shyamalan film not cursed or redeemed by its ending, a film which can stand up on its own terms with some superb performances from his best script in years, and almost may allow you to forgive him for the tripe he spent years giving us. Almost. You know what you need to do next Night, by the end of this. Do it, and you truly may be redeemed.
★ ★ ★ ★
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