I’ve been waiting since January to do this review. Now that M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller Split has been released on DVD/digital media, let’s talk about it.
Split is about three girls (the most prominent being Casey played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who are kidnapped by a man with multiple personalities (James McAvoy) for a purpose which is slowly revealed throughout the film. What follows is a slow burn of a thriller which makes the audience wonder if McAvoy’s psychologist (Betty Buckley) can unravel what’s happening in time to save the girls.
I enjoyed this movie when I saw it in theaters several months ago. The acting for the most part (particularly from James McAvoy) is great. This guy deserves some kind of award for this/these role(s). Most importantly you get the impression that each of these personalities is a whole character, not just a name with a gimmick. That’s impressive for a character with twenty-three personalities. Two of three most prominent of these are Dennis, a man obsessed with cleanliness, young girls, and looks like the real-life BTK killer (who is also named Dennis), and Hedwig, a nine year-old boy who has one of the best scenes in the movie. The one which got under my skin the most, however, was Patricia. She gives a constant impression of being unstable yet fully dedicated to acting calm to cover it up. Throughout the running time there are long shots where you see McAvoy’s speech patterns, voice, and body language change as he goes between different identities.
After her excellent performance in The VVitch Anya Taylor-Joy delivered again with her role as Casey, a character shrouded in even more mystery than any of McAvoy’s. I’ll be going into spoilers later on, but I will say you feel a chill as you learn more about her. Betty Buckley was also engaging as McAvoy’s psychologist Dr. Fletcher, bringing an intelligence and compassion to probably the most weakly written of the three leads. I say weakly written because a lot of her dialogue is awkward and roundabout (much like this sentence) and, as has been pointed out to me, she should have questioned her patient with an unhealthy obsession with young girls when she saw on the news that three young girls were kidnapped.
The other two girls honestly did not leave much of an impression on me and their acting seemed a little forced. I can’t recall either of their names nor the actresses who played them. I think the main reason for this is the writing didn’t flesh them out aside from having the characteristic of being sheltered, but this movie really isn’t about them.
The story of this movie well paced though slightly drawn out. Maybe it’s because audiences (myself included) now expect Shyamalan movies to build up to a final reveal but there are several times during the movie that I was waiting for the payoff. The good news is that the performances of the characters kept me invested enough to want to keep watching.
The twenty fourth personality of McAvoy is the driving force of the plot, and not really a spoiler as it’s alluded to early on. About halfway through the running time it’s tempting to see this as the big twist of the movie, but it’s better thought of as a plot element and new character. Keep watching.
Without going into spoilers, I highly recommend this movie to anyone who wants to see what an excellent actor is capable of when he or she commits entirely to a role. Every time I see it I enjoy it more.
Rating: 4.5/5 but rounded to ★★★★★
Now, let’s get into spoilers and that ending.
YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
There are three major plot elements that are revealed throughout the course of this movie. Let’s start with the one which is hinted at about halfway through.
It’s stated by Dr. Fletcher and several of McAvoy’s identities that switching between different personalities changes the person’s body. As a result, the twenty fourth personality of McAvoy (known as The Beast) is supposed to have almost impenetrable skin and incredible strength and abilities. It’s clear soon after it’s mentioned that the film is going in this direction, but this ties in very significantly with the final twist which I’ll get to soon. Though I wonder, does this mean the Patricia identity was biologically a woman?
The next major reveal is the past of Casey and the horrible abuse (physical and likely sexual) that she has been subjected to. There are flashbacks throughout the movie of a hunting trip she went on with her father and uncle, and originally you think that her experience surviving in the wild led to her resourcefulness. Instead you find out what happened on that trip at the hands of her uncle, and that she is still forced to endure his cruelty. This is the most poignant reveal of the movie, and improves watching her character on repeat viewings. You feel so bad for this girl and that her terrible life is about to end in suffering that you want even more for her to survive.
And now, the final twist. While listening to a news report of the events of the movie we are given a reveal of Bruce Willis as the superhero character David Dunn. This is a sequel to Unbreakable, my favorite Shyamalan movie. I’ve always felt that movie was underrated and an excellent interpretation of comic book superheroes, and could not be more thrilled that Shyamalan is revisiting that universe. I already wrote a review of that movie on this blog, so read that for more details.
This movie was an origin story…for a supervillain. The final twist works perfectly with the idea that the power of the mind can change the body in explaining his superpowers. He has an unpredictable and harsh view of the world as his motivation for being evil, and he cements himself as such by eating people near the end.
We haven’t really seen this before in cinema. There are plenty of superhero origin stories out there and the occasional film where a Marvel or DC anti-hero or villain will get more attention than the heroes, but this is different. This is an original universe inspired by comic books, not based on them, and a story about a fleshed-out supervillain which is independent of a hero. In a time when DC and Marvel are flooding theaters with their adaptations, it is so ambitious to build another world from scratch.
I can’t wait to see where Shyamalan goes from here.