M. Night Shyamalan is a fascinating name even if his films may be a failure in your eyes. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of some of his most notable works (and that includes The Sixth Sense) but something about his films has always drawn me towards them even if I’m not a fan of the final product. In terms of his most recent work, The Visit showed he was regaining a sense of his old glory through a bit of self-awareness and while I was not a fan of the film in itself, it showed potential for something more. If Split were an unleashing of what potential did The Visit show, then it can only go ahead to convince me I’m looking forward to Shyamalan’s next product.
With Split, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan brings attention to DID (dissociative identity disorder) in a man played by James McAvoy. This man kidnaps three teenage girls who are played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula – but soon enough they come into contact with different personalities that live within the body. But what these personalities share in common is a specific notion of a “Beast” coming by for each of them. This man, according to his trusted psychologist, has been showing twenty three different personalities, but something darker is suggested from the importance of why the three girls are brought to where they are. Among many things that I feared Split would have turned into, it thankfully never steered into that territory.
Perhaps the sort of split personality that James McAvoy’s character has in here may have been given off inside of a far-fetched manner, but that’s not to say his performance is any less than wonderful for he is having the time of his life in character. McAvoy, who is already a wonderful character actor in himself, embodies every last one of these personalities with ease, but in hindsight there’s another angle to which M. Night Shyamalan is presenting that allows for Split to become a much more interesting work altogether. It was interesting already how M. Night Shyamalan weaves it altogether as the film moves on, but that’s not to say elements certainly feel superfluous even if the attempts at exploration are where admiration is set to be earned, especially upon looking at the past of its female protagonist Casey.
At its most effective, the film is setting up an inescapable dread that surrounds a particular plan that certain personalities have for the girls. Yet through the female protagonist Casey, there’s a lingering thematic regarding trauma and how it affects a person although it may have been much clearer that through his setup of what happens between her and the many different personalities of McAvoy (particularly Hedwig), there’s still a humanistic touch coming by. Victimization is a key factor to the film’s characterization but Shyamalan clearly has sympathy even for his antagonistic forces in this scenario, forming a compelling relationship between Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy. It could be therein where the suspense found itself lying and soon enough, to a fitting climax.
Where Split does fall short, however – the other two girls in particular never carry the same impact that Anya Taylor-Joy had been able to carry. It could be the fault of how they were written, but they never feel nearly as nuanced in what roles they play to the film and just feel replaceable at best. Shyamalan’s approach to mental illness in McAvoy’s part isn’t a particularly nuanced one either but not on the end of the character himself, but rather his relationship with the psychologist. That’s not to say in the role of Dr. Fletcher that Betty Buckley is bad in her performance, because she isn’t, but rather instead these scenes feel less compelling than what has already been set up for the girls and end up dragging out the film’s length although not to an unbearable degree.
At hand though, Split is a neat return to form for M. Night Shyamalan as some may say, although even if I had never been the biggest fan there was always something fascinating going on inside of his work that kept me watching. Maybe they might not have worked to the degree that I wished they would, but with Split something else had come by, the sort that I would only have wanted after Unbreakable. Pacing and obvious superfluity aside, Split is fascinating where it should be just as every M. Night Shyamalan has always been. But in this case, it feels rewarding – at least for someone who saw only potential for great ideas arising with Shyamalan’s concepts that never found themselves up to par. It was clear The Visit was hinting at something more after he has suffered years of being critically mauled: it could be this and maybe more.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay by M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, James McAvoy, Betty Buckley
Release Year: 2017
Running Time: 117 minutes