Split (2016)

Review #1,454

Director:  M. Night Shyamalan
Cast:  James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Betty Buckley
Plot:  Three girls are kidnapped by a man diagnosed with 23 distinct personalities.  They must try to escape before the apparent emergence of a frightful new 24th.

Genre:  Drama / Thriller
Awards:  -
Runtime:  117min
Rating:  PG13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“You like to make fun of us, but we are more powerful than you think.”

Like us, most filmmakers have their ups and downs.  But for M. Night Shyamalan, the last ten or so years had been terrible, to say the least, the nadir of which was when he hit absolute rock bottom with The Last Airbender (2010).  But it appears that the sun is beginning to rise again in his courtyard, which is good news for fans who stuck by him all these while, on the virtue of such works as The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). 

His latest, Split, is his best film since 2002’s Signs (though I must confess that I enjoyed 2004’s The Village much more than most—incidentally also the most misunderstood film of his career, in my opinion), and certainly indicative of a welcoming upward trajectory after the mild success of The Visit (2015). 

James McAvoy is the star of Split, a film about the mental condition called dissociative identity disorder (there was some controversy about the film’s alleged stigmatization of mental illness).  He plays a character who’s afflicted with the syndrome, albeit exaggeratingly, possessing 23 different, often startling, personalities.  With the anticipation and fear that he might mutate into the 24th and final personality—The Beast—Split is a largely well-worked film that is more about the process than the outcome. 

The suspense comes from the tension between safety and uncertainty, a dialectic omnipresent, but infrequently executed well, in most psychological horror or thriller films.  Shyamalan visualizes this handily through a mix of flashback and present scenario (from the perspective of Casey, played by The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), and McAvoy's character's relationship with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley).

Split owes a debt to the highly-calibrated performance of McAvoy, who effortlessly changes into a different personality every time we see him.  To the credit of Shyamalan’s screenwriting, each presented character is given time to develop, and some of the film’s strongest dramatic content centers on the relationship dynamic between Casey and whoever McAvoy plays.

Something develops at the end of Split that will please Shyamalan’s fans—those with a keen ear for film music will recognize James Newton Howard’s theme from an earlier film before the final reveal.  How I wish Howard had scored this though.  The new composer West Dylan Thordson doesn’t quite impress, and Split doesn’t have that unique and quintessential Shyamalan soundscape and music, arguably the best-loved aspect of his earlier collaborations with Howard.

Verdict:  A welcome (though not triumphant) return to form for the beleaguered director, whose work here is his best since 2002’s Signs.


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