If The Visit was M. Night Shyamalan’s return voyage in the open waters of the low-budget horror-thriller, Split is where he’s found his sea legs.
Shyamalan has again teamed up with Blumhouse Productions (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, The Conjuring) to create a film that allows him to explore his creative storytelling without the pressures of a big-budget fantasy feature.
In Split, Kevin, a man with 23 unique personalities, abducts three teenage girls to prepare for the arrival of his 24th and final personality, “The Beast”. The unfortunate trio are abducted in broad daylight and brought to an underground bunker where they must try to escape their ominous and unknown fate.
Anya Taylor-Joy – who has secured her place as the new genre darling after her roles in The Witch and Morgan – plays Casey, a troubled teen who becomes the de facto leader of the group after demonstrating her quick wit and observational skills.
Taylor-Joy adds a doe-eyed, terrified, still-waters-run-deep balance in her scenes with James McAvoy. She successfully holds her own, which is no easy feat here.
McAvoy delivers an impressive full-throttle performance with all the delicate twists and turns of an extreme roller coaster. His physicality morphs and adapts to each personality as it takes control.
You can see each individual personality through his eyes, body language, and facial ticks so clearly that it’s possible to catch one masquerading as another. McAvoy wholly conquers this fragmented character.
The relationship between Kevin’s personalities and his psychologist, Dr. Fletcher, is like a well-rehearsed waltz on a field full of land mines. One misstep, one stumble, could be devastating. However, there’s an implicit trust that carries the weight of years of work and understanding. Her devotion to her patients is respectful and, overall, quite beautiful.
Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, whose stunning work you might have seen in It Follows, brings his talents to the structure of each scene. Close-up shots are frequently implemented to bring a tight focus on the skill of the actors. The viewer is tuned in to every minute change in expression and click of a sudden realization.
The sets and lighting echo the dichotomy between Kevin’s dark, dizzying, claustrophobic underground maze and Dr. Fletcher’s airy, bright and welcoming office. Every scene in Kevin’s lair left me with conflicting feelings; the action was so fantastic I didn’t want it to end, but by god did I want to be anywhere other than that dark hold.
Split focuses on Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), but doesn’t feel exploitative or flippant in its portrayal. Shyamalan has previously referenced his interest in the concept of multiple personalities. As he discussed in an interview with iHorror’s David Grove, he’s “always been fascinated with the elements of psychology”.
As one of the most controversial disorders with no clear method of diagnosis, it’s quite refreshing to see DID discussed openly and with an appropriate attention. In Split, the psychological process is the whole focus of the film. DID is not a throwaway plot twist, it’s a defense mechanism to severe abuse and trauma.
At the risk of saying too much, that’s what Split is all about; the adjustments we make to respond to and cope with a bad situation.
Overall, Split is a challenging thriller with as many leaps and bends as Kevin’s internal struggle. It dives into an exploration of our personal belief system and what physical affects those commitments can have.
With moments of dark comedy mixed in with high tension, it’s a genuinely engaging film. Above all else, Split is the perfect evidence that we have entered the renaissance of M. Night Shyamalan. I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s next.