Has there been a bigger disappointment in Hollywood these last 20 years than the wasted potential of M Night Shyamalan? After coming out like gangbusters with The Sixth Sense, and then the absolutely stunning Unbreakable, he burned out faster than a dollar-store sparkler. His sci-fi drama, Signs was adequate. And it was all down hill from there. His name has become mud, and audiences audibly groaned when it appeared on screen with a “from the mind of” credit. Thankfully, that all might just be about to change. Shyamalan’s latest fare, Split, may be exactly what his loyal fans, and reluctant critics have been waiting for. The king of twists may be back in good form, and hopefully, this time for good.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are leaving a party when they are abducted by Dennis (James McAvoy). Dennis locks the girls in a dark basement cell, and terrorizes them with his perversions. Shortly after, Dennis is scolded by Patricia. The girls think they might be saved, until it’s revealed that Patricia and Dennis are the same person. Kevin has 23 distinct personalities coexisting in his body. Unfortunately, Dennis and Patricia, the undesirables, have taken control of “the light,” the body’s consciousness. The pair’s twisted beliefs are keeping Kevin’s benevolent personalities prisoner, and endangering the three girls, as they await the arrival of Kevin’s 24th persona: The Beast, a deadly creature with a hunger for flesh.
“The broken are the more evolved.”
Split begins like any other standard Shyamalan film: ordinary people living the ordinary Philadelphia life. Things are quickly turned upside down, and we are thrust along with the three girls into Kevin’s twisted world. At the same time, we get glimpses of innocence and kindness, as we watch his usually dominant persona, Barry, interact with his therapist. This stark contrast between the girls’ terrifying ordeal, and Barry’s potential for creativity and candor is jarring, but calculated, and allows us to fear what might happen next, knowing that Kevin’s other personalities could be just as different and unpredictable.
The film sets a slow and steady pace after the initial abduction, as the girls try to cope with their imprisonment, and plan their escape. Only Casey, herself a trauma victim, seems to keep a level head, learning about Kevin’s personalities, and using that information to benefit herself. With every attempt at escape, the girls are separated, and the stakes seem to be rising, as Dennis and Patricia seem to be counting down to something. As we learn more of the Beast’s nature, and his impending arrival, the foreboding sense of doom becomes real. The myth and mystery surrounding the Beast begins to seep into the viewer’s mind, like any good urban legend. The slow burn as the tension and terror rises is perfect, and classic Shyamalan, reminiscent of The Sixth Sense, and to a lesser extent, Signs.
“He’s done awful things to people, and he’s gonna do awful things to you.”
The film’s biggest achievement, and the thing that helps raise it to almost instant-classic levels of quality, is McAvoy’s tour-de-force performance. Watching him slip from one character to the next is more than just impressive; it is stunning at times. Everything about every character is unique, from accents, to mannerisms, gait, and posture. McAvoy showcases no less than 8 distinct characters in Split, 4 of them in one scene. If the film gets enough attention and financial success, this could be the performance that finally rockets him to superstar status he deserves. McAvoy is a leading man through and through, but Split is him putting on a clinic as a true thespian. If all goes well, McAvoy’s Kevin could eventually be references alongside Hannibal Lector, The Joker, and Norman Bates.
Split is the true return of Shyamalan that we’ve always known he was capable of, but will still be frustrated it took so long. The acting is superb, as McAvoy puts on a fluid, powerhouse performance. The tension is unrelenting, and the twists are truly shocking, even for M Night himself. If he continues in this direction, perhaps he can reclaim some of that former glory and deliver on that early promise. For now, Split will remain one of the best films of the year (so far), and a terrific film disguised as a genre flick.
**Full ending SPOILERS below**
Split does contain a mid-credit stinger as well, and as a big fan of Shyamalan’s early work, I have to say it got me more excited for a teased sequel than any recent Marvel fare. After Casey’s rescue, Kevin, now dubbed “The Horde,” is on the run, his crimes and abilities plastered all over the news,. A young woman watching recalls a similar situation from years ago, with a psychopath in a wheelchair, also given a colourful name by the media. Another patron reminds her the man was known as Mr. Glass. That patron is revealed to be David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the superhuman hero from Unbreakable.
I, and many Shyamalan fans have been waiting for a sequel to Unbreakable for 15 years. The intensely engaging film was a wonderful attempt at a grounded, realistic “superhero movie.” Unbreakable gave us a deep look into a hero’s origin story. Now, perhaps Split has introduced us to this universe’s villain. If this leads to a third film, and a confrontation between these two extraordinary characters, I’ll be there opening night, and you should be too.