M. Night Shyamalan is a director that has experienced both extreme highs and lows in his career. After establishing his place as one of the most promising film auteurs in the world of cinema with the release of The Sixth Sense back in 1999, he’d go on to release a slew of pretty solid films like Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village (yes I liked that movie). But after The Village, his career as a movie director in my opinion has pretty much taken a nosedive, especially after his sacrilegious attempt at adapting one of the most beloved shows from Nickelodeon, The Last Airbender. Thinking about that abhorrent movie gives me PTSD.
But in recent years, I think it is safe to say that Shyamalan is currently going through a resurgence after a period of mediocrity and creative stagnation. His most recent movie, Split, has a relatively small budget just like the previous film that he worked on, The Visit, a movie that I thought was alright. I think Shyamalan works best under a tighter budget since he is forced to cohesively make the most out of what he’s got, while his higher budget works come off as either self-indulgent or lacking in focus. The story of Split centers around three teenage girls who get kidnapped by a mysterious man who has Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Split Personality Disorder). To be completely honest, I wasn’t sold on the trailer, it made it seem like it was going to be either excruciatingly dull or unintentionally funny. But despite my initial doubts, it definitely delivers in a lot of ways. Split is unnerving, and is led by an outstanding performance from James McAvoy. It also has a twist ending that might serve as a potential callback to one of his earlier films, though I’ll refrain from talking about it in the review deeply since it would delve into spoilers.
The movie starts off with Casey (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) departing someone’s birthday celebration with two fellow classmates and a chaperone. As they are passing some time in the car, they each end up getting abducted by one of the alternative personalities of Kevin (played by James McAvoy)-who happens to have 23 altogether…With a another one known as “The Beast’ that has yet to awaken.
Prior to watching this movie, I was well aware that this movie was mired in controversy despite getting mostly glowing reviews. A lot of mental-health professionals and even people living with Dissociative Identity Disorder have vehemently expressed their disgust with this film since they believe that Split stigmatizes mental health disorders with regards to how it is portrayed. While I believe that these criticisms are totally valid, it is important to realize that the depictions in this film are just fictionalized caricatures. I feel like McAvoy’s character was very nuanced in terms characterization and never felt one-dimensional at any point. Some of his alters are malevolent and leave you feeling perturbed (Dennis and Patricia), but their are were also some alters which I found to be pretty amiable and cute (especially Mr. Hedwig, the 9 year old Kanye West fan).
This film explores a lot of dark subject matters such as child abuse, pedophilia, and rape; I’m surprised that Split was even able to keep a PG-13 rating. These deep-rooted internal wounds isn’t just a thing that runs in McAvoy’s character, Kevin, it is also something that haunts Casey’s life as well. Throughout the movie, you get to see some flashback sequences of Casey’s past from her childhood years. While I did find these brief segments to be a bit jarring and meandering at first, I feel like they were necessary overall and not just haphazardly placed since it gives you more insight on why she behaves in a very withdrawn and socially detached manner. It drove home the point that some traumatic events that have happened in our past, can unfortunately leave psychological trauma that may linger on for the rest of our lives – especially with young children.
On a visual standpoint, I found Split to be incredibly entrancing and superbly shot. I loved how all the shots were framed, especially considering that most of the movie takes place indoors and within tightly concealed spaces. The meticulous cinematography does an excellent job of highlighting Anya Taylor-Joy’s minute subtleties as an actress, and also ratchets up the feeling tension and dread whenever McAvoy seamlessly switched his personality and posture (especially when he goes full berserk).
All in all, Split is definitely a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan as a director. It was excellently acted by the two leads, which made the below-par performances from some of the other actors to be more bearable. In addition, it’s also exquisitely shot from beginning to end. And if you have watched one of the earlier movies in Shyamalan’s filmography, Unbreakable, you are in for a surprise at the end since it may change how you feel about Split altogether.