Now I’m not the sort of person who’s going to dismiss a movie simply because M. Night Shyamalan’s name is attached. I’ve met plenty such people, and dismissing all current and future works by any filmmaker simply because of a few perceived missteps doesn’t make sense to me at all. Nor, however, am I some sort of Shyamalan defender or apologist.
For a few years there, I was as down on his work as anybody else, having been burned bad by that third act of The Village (2004). Up to then, I’d watch anything the man put out, and I made it a point to catch the opening weekend premieres of Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village. After The Village did what The Village does though, and ripped the monster movie I was so thoroughly enjoying away from me, I decided that I no longer needed to see every Shyamalan film. And indeed I haven’t seen every film he’s made since.
The ones I have made a point to see, I’ve enjoyed immensely though. The Happening (2008) drew me out to the theaters and though I was lukewarm on it at first, I’ve come to adore The Happening for its big ideas, bizarre tonal shifts, and (intentional?) non-stop hilarity. And then The Visit (2015) delivered precisely the sort of simple, spooky fun the trailers had promised. So going into Split (2016), I was extremely warm on Shyamalan’s work, and approached it with high hopes of having one hell of a good time.
And have a hell of a good time I did. Split follows through on all of its trailers’ promises, offering up a tense and effective bit of psychological horror. It opens with a very simple and familiar real world horror scenario in which a trio of young women is kidnapped and locked away in a basement by a total stranger. From there, Shyamalan raises the tension as the teenagers learn that their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), is more than a man; he’s in fact 23 men and women in one body, suffering from a split personality disorder. Kevin merely having split personalities isn’t the problem though. What is a problem is that the personalities currently in control of Kevin’s body are zealous believers in an as-yet unmanifested, monstrous 24th personality that yearns to devour the young women.
What Shyamalan does so brilliantly here is dole out information about Kevin’s personalities slowly and methodically. The film itself is well-paced too, but that’s not nearly as impressive to me as his ability to keep me hooked on this single character, constantly clamoring for more. And he teases us with it. There are personalities we don’t meet until the very end of the movie, and others we never meet at all. We get to know a handful of these distinct personalities in particular really well, and as I began to obsess over these characters, I realized one hugely important thing: James McAvoy is an incredible talent!
This is not to say I didn’t think McAvoy was good before, of course, but I certainly can’t think of a film that’s provided such a brilliant showcase of the man’s talents as Split. From the obsessive-compulsive Dennis to the prim and proper Ms. Patricia to the precocious, 9-year-old Hedwig, each and every one of these characters come alive through McAvoy, and I do so hope Shyamalan delivers more of McAvoy in this character in the future (something the “holy shit” final moments of the film may just be hinting at?).
I’m reluctant to say much more about the film for fear of spoiling some of the more exciting and/or thought-provoking late game developments. However, I do feel it’s important to address one concern that people have about watching any Shyamalan film: the twists. It’s what people so often cite to me as their #1 problem with his films, even if the twist is totally earned and the seeds of it clearly planted from the start. For example, you can look to The Visit for a third act twist that Shyamalan earned, and yet I had no fewer than three people tell me the twist ruined the film for them. So bear that in mind as you move toward the conclusion of Split. Any twist you’ll find there is planted and the pay-off appropriately earned. This is not one of those having the rug pulled out from under you affairs like The Village was.
Split is simply a tight, psychological horror film that makes wild promises it actually manages to keep. Plus, Split, like The Visit before it, proves to be precisely as good as the trailer makes it look. So if you saw the trailer and thought to yourself, “Hmm, maybe now’s the time to give that Shyamalan one more shot,” now absolutely is that time!
Split is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment. Special features on the home video release include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, “The Many faces of James McAvoy” featurette, and a featurette about Shyamalan himself.