M. Night Shymalan has been mostly a punchline since the mid 2000’s, with a string of hilariously terrible movies like The Happening that finally culminated in the blockbuster disaster that was The Last Airbender. Shockingly, he seemed to learn from his hubris and forged a new partnership with Blumhouse that resulted in 2015’s critically well received found footage horror movie The Visit and now Split, a fantastic “trapped in one location” thriller that features an onslaught of acting from James McAvoy.
McAvoy plays Kevin, a man with 23 personalities that stem from childhood trauma. Some are nice, like fashion designer Barry or history buff Orwell but two of his personalities, Dennis and Patricia, have developed a dangerous obsession with a 24th personality they have dubbed “The Beast” and believe they need to eat the meat of the impure to awaken him, leading Dennis capture three teenage girls, including Kasey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The movie does an incredible job of pacing and doling out pieces of the puzzle that is Kevin. There’s not some sort of long expository introduction to who he is and what is going on, you piece it together along with the girls. James McAvoy is incredible here, making it easy to figure out which personality is currently in control although it gets even more complicated when you find out the personalities can fake being other personalities and there’s scenes where he’s having a three way conversation with himself, with absolutely seamless transitions between the characters voices. There’s also really great pacing to the girls trying to escape and they act pretty smartly, much like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s great trapped thriller, 10 Cloverfield Lane. Betty Buckley is great as well as Dr. Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who slowly realizes something is up when the normally dormant Dennis is suddenly in command (Barry is usually the calm and collected leader of the other “IDs”) but she is always careful about what she says. The one thing that didn’t click for me were flashbacks to Kasey’s childhood, they didn’t really build to anything substantial other than the obvious thing they imply and it seems strange to including them and not flashbacks to Kevin’s childhood to flesh him out more.
M. Night does a great job with the main location of Kevin’s lair, giving you a sense of the layout and slowly revealing new rooms and clues to what Dennis and Patricia’s masterplan is and you’re never bored even though 80% of the movie is one creepy hallway of rooms. M. Night also shows a lot of restraint and subtlety as well, using slow burn tension instead of ridiculous shock value. He still puts himself in the movie via a cameo and some of the writing, especially in the opening scene, is a little eye rolling but it’s a far cry from the dark days of things like Lady in the Water. Split is, to me, right up there with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable as one of his best movies. If you’ve read anything about this movie, you also know there is a major reveal in the final scene that I definitely will not spoil here and you should really go in not knowing but needless to say it is pretty incredible and makes me want to see a sequel to this immediately (and since it’s doing great at the box office, that seems like a real possibility). This final scene actually does the brilliant job of making any criticisms about realism sort of moot, as the implications of it puts Split in a much more heightened and fantastical light.
Split is a fantastic thriller and goes a long way to making me trust M. Night again as a director. James McAvoy is incredible and Anya Taylor-Joy is solid as well and if M. Night can fulfill the promise of that last scene, we are in for one hell of a follow up.