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The rise and fall of M. Night Shyamalan was dizzying. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, he was considered the heir to Steven Spielberg—a populist filmmaker with a distinct, artful style. But then he made a series of duds, among them The Last Airbender and After Earth, and fans wondered what they saw in the first place. Split is not a return to form, exactly, since Shyamalan embraces his genre roots more than he attempts to transcend them. This is a pulpy psychological thriller, one that juxtaposes Shyamalan’s recurring themes alongside horror hallmarks that have been around for decades.
The opening sequence is brusque. While waiting in a car for a ride home, a mysterious stranger abducts Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with her classmates Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). The three young women awake in a cell, alone, and their captor is Dennis (James McAvoy), a stern man with an angry disposition and closely-cropped hair. Something is strange about Dennis, and the women only discover it slowly: afflicted with multiple-personality disorder, Dennis is one of 23 identities that live inside the man’s mind.
Other identities include Barry the fashion-designer, Jade the sassy diabetic, and Patricia the matronly middle-aged woman. Casey tries to exploit Dennis’ condition, with one escape attempt after another, while we learn about her troubled past through flashback. There is also a subplot involving Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), a therapist to all the identities. Patricia/Dennis warn of “The Beast,” a dangerous 24th personality who may have extraordinary abilities.
The setting and scope of Split is notably economical. The underground bunker where the women are held is claustrophobic, with just enough production details to be evocative and creepy. The stripped-down locations are an opportunity for Shyamalan to focus on his actors—the real source of unease and tension. Taylor-Joy, who played a similar role in last year’s The Witch, is resourceful and empathetic without deigning to explain herself. Her many attempts to manipulate Hedwig, a childlike identity, thread the needle between mind-games and cruel exploitation.
Still, the real star is McAvoy, who gives a virtuoso performance. The accent/mannerisms are varied and distinct enough to be unique—sometimes McAvoy switches between them in an instant. Shyamalan originally intended the role for Joaquin Phoenix, who would probably take the role too seriously. There is a hidden wink in McAvoy’s acting, at least until the climax kicks into gear. Split has more violence than many Shyamalan films, including semi-plausible body horror that is almost as effective as the mysteries over The Beast’s ultimate purpose.
As a director, Shyamalan dials down the showier flourishes of his first films. The camera is hardly upside-down—a novelty of his earlier work that served as a heavy-handed metaphor. Still, he still wants to mix ordinary POV shots alongside extraordinary terror: like Unbreakable, there is a long shot where the camera sits in a passenger seat, tilting from one seat’s side to another, as if the camera is an eager listener. There is a lot of dialogue in Split, and Shyamalan is keenly of aware of how to use small spaces to offer relief, or a sense of claustrophobia. Those feelings are absent from the film’s final scenes, which unfolds more like a traditional horror/action film. They are suspenseful—Shyamalan is a natural filmmaker—and yet they are more perfunctory than the opening acts.
Shyamalan’s trademark is the plot-twist—for better or worse. Audiences now expect them, which ruins the fun; it’s easy to notice a twist when you know one is coming. Luckily, Shyamalan’s top talent is more important than his trademark. He is an expert at misdirection, laying out important material in plain view while keeping the focus elsewhere. Split is full of misdirection, including multiple instances of Chekhov’s gun. Many characters have awful pasts, and it is clever how their history inform their choices in extraordinary circumstances. Split has a sinister worldview, articulating in an earned moment that is somehow sleazy, too. It is a measure of Shyamalan’s success that he finds room for so many different moods and feelings. The director may never return to his place in the film canon, but here he makes a case for a unique, intriguing new niche.
Split opens Friday in theaters everywhere.