By Ryan Keating-Lambert
M. Night. Shyamalan’s Split is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller / horror with the signature dialogue and slow burn pace of the director’s earlier work, and an insane final act. It’s The Sixth Sense on steroids.
Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy) is a troubled young man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). He abducts three girls from a restaurant car park, including teenage misfit Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and brings them back to his underground residence. It’s here that the girls learn about his 23 different personalities, and the impending arrival of a sinister 24th – the beast.
I was debating about whether to make this a spoiler review or not, and I just have to. There’s so much going on in this film that I need to geek out on. It’s been a long long time since M. Night. Shyamalan has given us something this decent. From the expensive Will Smith sci-fi outing After Earth which met with terrible reviews in 2013, to the kind of creepy found footage film The Visit which saw him partner up with horror producer Jason Blum.
Shyamalan has partnered up with Blum again for Split, which takes conventions from both the horror and the thriller genres, and works quite well. There’s all the familiarity of an early Shyamalan film here. The mood is dark and slow, but has you poised and ready for a decent climax like Unbreakable or Signs, which was his last film to be well received critically.
But then there’s a real element of terror to the final act. The tension is built effortlessly and you really dread the arrival of the beast, which is portrayed in drawings as an Insidious-looking monster. Rather than going all out though, Shyamalan chooses to keep the beast slightly human. I’m glad his physical appearance doesn’t change too much, otherwise it would’ve been ridiculous.
Dr Karen Fletcher played brilliantly by Betty Buckley, spends majority of the film convincing us that DID is a legitimate disease and that the arrival of a new personality can even change the body’s chemistry. A blind woman could gain sight if she believed she had it.
An interesting theory and somewhat believable. While I did buy that he could have super strength with the adrenalin on being the beast, I just couldn’t buy the crawling on the walls.. How could he defy gravity like that? I’m glad they stopped it there.
Though stalking Casey by crawling along the pipes in that hallway scene was unbelievably scary and such a nice sequence, as was the eating of the ‘impure’ (those poor girls). Proper shock material that we’ve seen in other Blumhouse productions like Sinister and Insidious. McAvoy was just terrifying.
But he wasn’t just terrifying, he was adorable, obsessive, strong, ambitious, caring, and innocent. He plays 9 of the 24 altogether which is one hell of an achievement. Every personality was done so well and McAvoy has clearly manufactured multiple mannerisms and voices to get us familiar with every character. As you can probably expect, the work was long and difficult. In a recent interview on the Empire Magazine podcast, McAvoy admits to even punching a wall and breaking his hand because he was so frustrated with getting it right. There’s surely an award in this for him.
One of his best portrayals, aside from the beast which was fantastic, was the 9-year-old boy Hedwig. His childlike curiosity is just so real and makes for great chemistry with Casey, especially when she tries to turn him against the other personalities. Speaking of, Anya Taylor-Joy is fantastic here as she was in The Witch. I wouldn’t be surprised if she jumps on board for more Shyamalan films in the near future.
Who knows what the future holds for Shyamalan generally. This film was such a surprise and shows that he has finally become more self-aware. His cameo in Split is much shorter, unlike the painfully long part in Lady in the Water when he was the ‘prophetic writer’, no wonder the critics tore him apart for that. In this he is criticised by Dr Fletcher for eating Hooters, fast food rubbish that probably symbolises mainstream Hollywood. She also says that he’s not very meticulous and is getting soft around the middle, probably poking fun at the director’s age and career.
It’s more than obvious that he’s put in a lot of thought and effort to bring himself back up with this one though. Even the mise-en-scene and cinematography are ‘split’. Everything is so symmetrical and there are so many extreme close-ups to really get those personalities under your skin. In many ways, you become the 25th personality – I could go on for ages about this, but best to leave it for a drunken conversation with friends.
And then there’s the twist that every old Shyamalan film is famous for, but this one is sort of not a twist. As soon as they started playing that memorable James Newton-Howard theme, I knew it was Unbreakable (one of his best films in my opinion). I did not expect however, that Bruce Willis was actually going to be there at the end… giddy as a school boy I was.
We should’ve seen the connection all along though. That cracked glass on the poster among other things… So what does this all mean then?
I suppose it means that Kevin Crumb is the new villain in this Philadelphia universe created by Shyamalan. So I presume that unbreakable David Dunn (Bruce Willis) will eventually fight him. Shyamalan recently stated that Crumb was the original antagonist for Unbreakable but was booted because of the great relationship between the other two characters Dunn and Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson).
According to Empire, Shyamalan is now working on a third movie.. Personally, I’m getting a little tired of the shared universe thing, but it does make me comfortable that Crumb’s character has been in the works from the very beginning. Apparently both Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson wanted a sequel to the original as well.
Let’s see what happens. Either way, Split hooks you from the opening credits to the final twist. Check it out.
Feature photo: Screen Rant