With Split, director/writer M. Night Shyamalan concocts a clever premise and delivers one of the most suspenseful thrillers this decade.
Three girls are kidnapped and are further terrified upon learning their assailant Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy, Atomic Blonde) has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder or its old term, multiple personality disorder. Sometimes over the span of hours, the girls meet the various personalities including the OCD germaphobe Dennis, the stern Patricia and 9-year-old Hedwig.
McAvoy has routinely been terrific whether in starring or supporting roles, but this is likely to become his defining performance. There’s a potential for unintended comedy if the personalities were played too silly, but McAvoy never allows for a moment of doubt making each one come off like a distinctive character. From the body language to line delivery to expressions, McAvoy is flawless. His performance is likely to get ignored in favor of the more obvious choices, but this is an award worthy performance by any measure.
One of the more encouraging aspects of the film is Shyamalan doesn’t take logistical shortcuts by dumbing down the girls. They’re in a stressful, life-threatening situation, but they’re not so paralyzed with fear that they spend the entire movie crying and passively awaiting their fate.
Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) immediately starts trying to come up with escape strategies. Marcia (Jessica Sula) opts for a more physical method while Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) takes a more methodical, patient approach.
Throughout the film, more of Casey’s backstory is developed from her childhood learning to hunt with her father and her previous experience with monsters of a different kid. Taylor-Joy also delivers an impressive performance and conveys a ton of emotion even though Casey doesn’t have a ton of dialogue.
There were a lot of ways Shyamalan could have taken the film, but the unconventional approach with flashbacks and counseling sessions really pays off. Casey’s flashbacks prove a thoughtful avenue in developing the main protagonist in a thriller.
Equally engaging is the sessions Kevin has with his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). These provide McAvoy another showcase to reveal more personalities and these scenes might be even more impressive as he conveys the personality shift without the benefit of wardrobe changes.
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Due to the nature of the film, Shyamalan uses a considerable amount of close-up shots both to spotlight Taylor-Joy’s big expressive eyes and McAvoy’s subtle physical cues to foreshadow and tease the next personality shift. All the personalities warn the girls the most terrifying personality, The Beast, is on his way, which helps establish a sense of urgency. Shyamalan delivers on this buildup making for an intense final act.
Shyamalan’s signature twist at the end is a doozy. Some of his films don’t hold up once you know the twist, but Split will not only endure with repeated viewings, it encourages revisiting another Shyamalan gem.
Split is a welcome return to form for Shyamalan and for the first time in years, sets the audience up to anxiously await his next project. How’s that for a twist?
Rating: 9 out of 10
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures