“Split” Movie Review


split-mcavoy-turtleneck

     Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s career had found itself in such a drastic tailspin, that the marketing team behind 2013’s Wil Smith vehicle “After Earth” determined it best to leave his name off of the film’s promotional materials.  “After Earth” , of course, bombed critically and financially anyway and Shyamalan was the primary beneficiary of the film’s criticism, leaving his fan base to wonder whether the once director of “The Sixth Sense” could somehow rekindle the magic of his early films.  To a certain extent, that question was already answered with his 2015 low budget horror thriller “The Visit”.  That film garnered plenty of critical praise, and because of Shyamalan’s independent partnership with Blumhouse producer Jason Blum, “The Visit” also turned a tidy profit while leaving creative control with Shyamalan without the worry of a hefty studio investment to get the film made.  Using the exact same formula, the “Unbreakable” director has created another successful foray into the horror thriller genre with the multiple personality story “Split”

     “Split” features one of those acting opportunities of which I have to figure would be coveted by a true actor looking to sink their teeth into an ultra challenging role, while working with one of the best directors of our generation. Here, it’s James McAvoy (“X-Men: First Class”) who portrays Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man who displays 24 distinct personalities, yet somehow manages to live amongst us as a seemingly normal working adult. As is the case with all of Shyamalan’s better films, the less you know about the plot, the better.  What the film’s trailer reveals is rather simple.  A trio of teenage girls are being given a ride home by one of their parents and in the blink of an eye, Kevin dispatches the parent and kidnaps the three girls.  When they awaken, they find themselves imprisoned in a room in an unknown location and slowly begin to determine there is much more to their captor than meets the eye.

     Shyamalan’s screenplay is impeccably written, shaping both a terrifying story arc for Kevin and all of the people who live within him, but also for the film’s main protagonist, Casey Cooke, played by Anya Taylor-Joy who shines again after her breakout role in 2016’s “The Witch”.  Though a horror film at its core, Shyamalan doesn’t stick with the usual tropes that often portray the victims in particular as dimwitted and unable to cope with the situation they have found themselves in.  Instead, Casey, along with Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) are a formidable challenge for Kevin, often displaying a knack for survival well beyond their years.  But it’s McAvoy’s sterling performance that drives the narrative with an astonishing array of characters who range from elementary school age to adult, as well as both male and female.

     Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) is Kevin’s psychiatrist and has been treated him for his multiple personality disorder for quite sometime.  In addition to the scenes with Casey, Marcia, and Claire, Kevin’s interactions with Dr. Fletcher are some of the most intriguing in the story.  We’re told much of what she has uncovered by treating Kevin is looked down upon by her peers as being more of an act than an actual condition.  Of course, we as the audience know this isn’t the case, as Kevin hauntingly transitions from person to person, each knowing of the other and in some cases in fear of what one of the others may do as punishment for foiling his/her plans, particularly as it deals with the kidnapping.  All of this becomes quite interesting when Casey determines she can negotiate their escape with one of the more harmless personalities, which injects a high level of suspense into every scene as we anticipate one of the evil personalities suddenly taking over and ending any hope of survival.

     Two things stood out to me while watching “Split”.  First and foremost is Shyamalan’s resurgence as a filmmaker and his ability to use his own signature visual style combined with intriguing and original storytelling.  He had displayed this skill many times before, namely with his first four films, but had faltered significantly as of late with bombs like “The Last Airbender” and the aforementioned “After Earth”.  His return to the basics with “The Visit” and “Split” represents a revival of sorts, in which he has clearly figured out what made his films great in the first place.  A revelation that clearly bodes well for his future prospects.  The second is a clear fascination with the mentally ill.  I won’t ruin any of the surprises in “The Visit” if you have yet to partake, but both that film and “Split” bring mental illness to the forefront of their respective stories and I can’t help but to wonder if lines are being crossed for the sake of entertainment.  Save to say, I doubt any of the mental health organizations in this country will be endorsing either of Shyamalan’s latest films since their thrust has always been to allow those who suffer from these illnesses to live amongst everyone else, rather than being singled out.  And if the final scene in “Split” is any indication, it would appear Shyamalan intends to explore the subject even further.  GRADE: B