There are few things more difficult to achieve than to fall back into good graces with the internet after you have been completely and utterly vilified by it time and time again. This was the herculean task ahead of legendary/infamous director M. Night Shyamalan as he braved his way through the world of cynicism and internet comments to bring us his newest film, Split. The Shyamalan oeuvre is indeed a varied one, as at the beginning of his career he brought us such masterpieces as The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable. Yet at some point, he seemed to make a bit of a misstep and brought us an indisputably bad series of films including The Happening, After Earth, and what might be the most hated film in the history of the internet, The Last Airbender. Sure, he made The Visit a few years ago, but while some people liked that film, myself included, almost nobody saw it. So after all these years is Split finally the movie we’ve been looking for to bring Shyamalan back to form? Well, everybody loves a good comeback story.
Split opens on a teenage girl’s birthday party. Claire has invited her entire class, including her best friend Marcia and Casey, the “creepy” girl in school who doesn’t really talk to anyone. The three of them get in a car together only to realize that their father isn’t driving, but rather they’ve just been abducted by James McAvoy’s character. Things get worse when they wake up to discover their captor has a rare personality disease where more than one person lives inside of his head. 23 people, to be exact. And thus begins this crazy ride of a psychological thriller. What’s the best word to describe Split? With a gun to my head, I would probably choose “bonkers.” This movie is an absolute riot from beginning to end. The premise is pretty brilliant and each scene leaves you wondering “what on earth is possibly going to happen next?” The screenplay is electric and feels incredibly original. This film has the same magic as all classic Shyamalan films, stamped with the watermark of a veteran director. But while this film is very well directed, artistically shot and scored, its real strength lies in its acting.
There aren’t many divisions of the filmmaking craft that are more hit or miss than teenage actors. Sometimes you get truly talented actors like Hailee Steinfeld or Elle Fanning, or you get actors like the cast of The Bye Bye Man who should just be happy that it’s not too late to pick a different profession. Thankfully, the casting director for Split picked three very capable young women to fill the pivotal roles at the helm of this film. The two best friends, Jessica Sula and Hailey Lu Richardson (who was most recently seen in The Edge of Seventeen) nail the transformation from distrusting the weird girl to befriending her out of necessity to truly accepting her as one of their own. Richardson is given some rough dialogue as Claire, but to be honest, dialogue has never been Shyamalan’s strong suit. Don’t jump to discredit her as an actor if her delivery feels a little off in this movie, as she really does do a great job in The Edge of Seventeen.
The heart of this film is Anya Taylor-Joy as Claire. She fills the role as the protagonist as her character develops a very peculiar relationship with McAvoy as the film progresses. She’s got a very interesting past that gets revealed as the film goes on through the use of flashbacks. The arc that her character exhibits in this film is, to be honest, nothing short of brilliant. And while that is a testament to the screenplay, a true actor will take the script they’re given and heighten it to a new level. Which is exactly what Taylor-Joy does as she makes this role her own. She’s never obnoxious or campy, which is a dangerous pitfall many actors fall into when they’re trying to be the “misunderstood teen.” If anything her character feels the most familiar in this movie as she does a fantastic job of being genuine and providing a window into the story for the audience. But let’s be real here. None of the three of these are the best performance in this film.
What is McAvoy in this film? Is he an adversary? Is he a misunderstood anti-hero? Is he a friendly face in a horrifying environment? Realistically he is all three, and that is where the true scintillation of his performance lies. McAvoy plays multiple people in this movie and does so with care, attention, and empathy so that each character he portrays becomes a distinct and fully-realized separate entity. Not only does he play individual characters with absolute skill, but he also plays the transition to these different roles with an utterly genius subtlety and an undeniable distinction. He grabs the camera’s attention at every single moment that he is onscreen. He masterfully becomes dangerous, welcoming and mysterious at any turn to create a beautifully enigmatic character that should be any actor’s dream to embody. There is a scene in this film involving music in which McAvoy captivated me so much he nearly brought me to tears at how entertaining he truly was. The legacy of this film should be nothing else if not a master class performance from James McAvoy. He is truly that good.
Let’s have a bit of a “Take it from me” moment. I saw this film with a crowd of teenagers that will probably leave and say that it sucks. Their reasoning? It wasn’t scary. Well, let me tell you right now, this is not a horror movie. It just simply isn’t. While it may have been marketed as a horror film what it is is a thriller. There’s a very fine distinction between the two. There are no “horrifying” sequences in this film. What there is instead is some perfectly executed tension. The curiosity of what is going to happen next is incredibly palpable and keeps you, to cite the biggest movie review cliche of all time, on the edge of your seat. You’ll probably also hear some obnoxious teenagers say, “It was so stupid, I was laughing the whole time.” Well, of course, you were laughing the whole time because this movie is funny! Like some of Shyamalan’s best films, there is some very well placed humor in this film. So yeah, take it from me. No matter what you hear on the street, this movie is actually very good. It’s certainly not perfect. I already mentioned how the dialogue can be kind of rocky. At parts Shyamalan tries to implement some more traditional horror movie cliches, you know, the jump scare or the offscreen drag, in order to illicit some sort of scare in the audience, which didn’t really work for me, but those are so few and far between it doesn’t really add up to anything substantial. I would say the part of this film that bothered me most would be the subplot with McAvoy’s therapist. It seemed very conventional, resorting at times to some very expositional scenes that just felt kind of disingenuous to the rest of the film. While the scenes with her never necessarily bothered me, they just were considerably weaker than others when compared side by side. Ladies and gentlemen, I invite you to see Split if you are looking for a good time at the movies. For it is simply that. It is a good time at the movies. Is it Shyamalan’s big return to form? Yeah, probably. I mean the guy was never Martin Scorsese. He was just really good at telling a compelling story and if Split is anything, it is certainly compelling. The internet might not yet be ready to forgive him for The Last Airbender, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.
All images are from Split, a BlumHouse production.