Split (review)

After a succession of financial flops and critical failures many were willing to write off M.Night Shyamalan. Some argued his early successes were a fluke and that his current skid had revealed the true extent of his abilities. But I always held a much more relaxed view of the director, as I still saw skill in some of his poorly regarded films. Sure he was on a bad streak but I long held out hope that one day he’d be able to pull up from the nose dive and return to his former glory.

Well it seemed he was beginning to turn things around with his 2015 release The Visit, a decent return to horror for the director. More importantly there were glimpses of the M.Night everyone originally fell in love with. So I was more than excited when I saw he was making another psychological horror to follow up called Split.

Split stars James McAvoy as man suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, housing 23 distinct personalities, who kidnaps 3 girls for an unknown purpose.

The movie is without a doubt M.Night’s full blown return to form in the best way possible. It more than met all my expectations. It’s a gripping thriller that’s carefully crafted, and features the most dynamic acting performance I’ve seen in quite some time.

A movie like this could have easily been a convoluted mess, but M.Night holds the reigns and delivers a straightforward story (as straightforward as thrillers can be). Some criticisms of M.Night’s earlier work is that they were arguably crafted around their plot twists, but in Split this is not the case. The story is clear and engaging in and of itself.

Some people were worried or even angered that this film might increase the stigma around people with mental illnesses, but I felt M.Night handled it well enough. He at least makes it clear that being mentally ill isn’t entirely the sole reason why he does bad things. It plays a part certainly, but the story makes several attempts to show that it is not the primary reason. Though I can see how others might disagree, I personally didn’t feel the movie was done in bad taste.

Now what really makes this movie shine is McAvoy’s performance hands down. He is the main event, the thing everyone has come to see and he just knocks it out of the park. He manages to create a character with multiple personalities, and make it totally believable. McAvoy doesn’t wear any prosthetics in the film, in fact he looks very much like himself, and yet he completely disappears into the role. From his first appearance to his last, McAvoy manages to just blend into the story seamlessly.

The strength in his performance comes down to his facial expressions. He wields a mastery over them, with simple subtle change in expression able to convey completely different personalities. There’s even times in the movie where he’s able to layer personalities simultaneously and yet maintain a clear distinction between them.

If this movie were just a drama about a man’s struggle with mental illness he would without a doubt be nominated for an Oscar. Sadly being that Split is a horror/thriller he’s been completely ignored. Afterall it’s not secret that the Academy likes to turn up it’s stuffy nose at more genre based films (e.g. horror, sci-fi, thriller, etc) no matter how good they might be.

As for other stand out performances, Anya Taylor-Joy does a good job as the outsider Kacey. Playing opposite McAvoy for the majority of the movie she does more than hold her own, as she makes their interactions truly interesting.

Betty Buckley as the psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher was good as well. She plays the intelligent and compassionate doctor expertly. You really believe she cares and believes McAvoy’s character. She always provides an interesting counterbalance to McAvoy whenever their characters interact on screen.

I can’t pick out any major flaws with the film other than the pacing was a bit slow for me. I did find myself spacing out a bit, before something snapped my attention back up. But other than that everything else was strong.

I will say that the movie does have a feeling of restraint on behalf of M.Night. It doesn’t quite have that strong sense of his signature style that permeate his other thrillers. Perhaps it was the budget restrictions, or maybe he has a much stronger producer to prevent over self-indulgence. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps it’s even a good thing, it’s just something intriguing I noticed. Maybe he’ll eventually return to his original stylings when he’s comfortable, or maybe he’s trying to forge something new. Whatever the case it’s good to see he’s on a good streak again.

If you’re split on Split, don’t be. The “horror” element in this film is pretty mild, it’s just intense. Otherwise it is a solid film in every aspect and if nothing else, McAvoy’s performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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