M. Night Shyamalan came onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, an explosive film that blew the minds of most movie goers with one of the most shocking, clever twists in movie history. This quickly made his name synonymous with the big twist, setting a bar so high for himself, it was going to be near impossible to vault it. And though his next two films, Unbreakable and Signs, both delivered in one way or another, the quality of each consecutive film continued to drop until he hit an all-time low with the unwatchable mess, The Last Airbender. It’s no wonder he dropped out of sight for three years before returning with After Earth, a movie that refrained from promoting Shyamalan’s name in any of its marketing. Two years later, he took the reigns of his career by teaming up with Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions to formally reinvent of his brand. And if 2015’s The Visit was a return to form for Shyamalan, Split, his new psychological thriller, is the stamp that should reignite audience adoration for such a fascinating filmmaker.
James McAvoy plays Kevin, a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID). His psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), an expert in DID and multiple personalities, states that he has 23 distinct personalities, the most prominent of which is Donnie, a obsessive compulsive germaphobe who can’t even stand when someone has a crumb on their shirt. He believes that a fairy tale told to keep each of the personalities in check is real, and that a twenty-fourth personality known as “the beast” is about to be born. To prepare, Donnie, the temper-riddled nurturer Patricia, and nine-year-old deviant Hedwig, overpower the other personalities and kidnap a trio of high school girls that will be fed to the beast upon his arrival.
The girls — mean girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), her best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and lonely outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) — are locked in a windowless room (with one very immaculate-white bathroom) to await their fates. As Claire and Marcia seek ways to escape the clutches of this madman (which only lead to them being separated and locked away in storage closets), Casey takes a more subtle approach. Based on flashbacks of an eight-year-old Casey hunting with her father and uncle that reveals a very disturbing past, Casey may have something in common with her captor, so she attempts to exploit that by bonding with Hedwig, who crushes on Casey to the point of laying with her as she sleeps, asking to kiss her and inviting her to his bedroom to watch him dance.
Though all of the performances are terrific, this is McAvoy’s chance to prove why he’s such a talented actor. Each personality that he presents is unique, charming and frightening, wrapped in an anguish that’s masked by each one’s need for acceptance. McAvoy alternates between each personality so fluidly, I could see the shift happen in not only his physical nature, but in his eyes, which brilliantly embeds the state of mind of each character with ease. When Donnie pretends to be a different personality (the positive artist, Barry) to deceive the doctor so that she doesn’t worry about the cryptic messages being sent to her email every night, you’re not able to see the complexity in the performance until you meet the real Barry and how Donnie interpreted this personality.
But what about the twist? This is an M. Night Shyamalan film. I don’t care if the film doesn’t call for one, there must be one. And it better be a doozy, or the whole film will be ridiculed a mess.
This type of rhetoric is something Shyamalan is unfortunately going to have to live with for the rest of his career. Audiences hold that expectation, and whenever his name is attached to anything (including television, where Wayward Pines was able to deliver a twist on par with The Sixth Sense) audiences have been hardwired to wait with bated breath for that mind-blowing finale. And when it doesn’t come (or it’s less than killer), they’re disappointed. It’s quite possible that it’s because of this expectation that most fans believe his movies degraded the way they did. He started trying too hard to satiate this desire for a killer reveal and the overall stories and characters took the brunt of the hit, uncovering cracks that couldn’t be repaired.
I’m happy to say there is a twist in Split, but it doesn’t come in the form one might expect. For most of the film, I tried to piece things together and guess where it might be going. I formulated different scenarios of alternate realities, or ways in which some of what was being shown wasn’t actually real. Perhaps Shyamalan was simply playing with my head and the twist wouldn’t be some grand revelation, but a quiet turn of events I would never see coming, yet answer a slew of questions. So when the film reached its satisfying climax (one that did subtly answer the true psychological bond between Casey and Kevin’s personalities), there still wasn’t a true twist to speak of. Was I disappointed? Sure, but because of McAvoy and the story itself, I still felt the film was a strong addition to Shyamalan’s filmography.
Then, as Shyamalan wraps the film, he tags on a two-minute finale that changes everything. It may not hit general cinema-goers the same way it will ardent Shyamalan fans, but for those who absolutely love his early works, the end will no doubt make your head spin with glee, opening up possibilities that are truly exciting. Shyamalan may not have always gotten it right, and he may not always create a twist to end all twists, but when Shyamalan is at the top of his game, he’s able to use his quiet narrative style to introduce us to compelling characters going about what is considered a mundane existence, only to pull the rug out from under us like a true movie magician.
My Grade: A
Next week, new movies include Resident Evil, A Dog’s Purpose and Gold. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.