An unrelenting cerebral thriller, Split strikes deep with its exploration of human nature and its possibilities. M. Night Shyamalan’s return to form is strong in character and visuals yet it is this controversial director’s own quirks and flaws that stop it from being great.
Shyamalan is known for his big yet often flawed ideas but Split manages to ground the often absurd dialogue and lingering camera through the strength of the performances across the board. While the whole cast does a good job, our two primary characters, troubled captive Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the mentally unstable Kevin (James McAvoy), are a wonder that completely captivate you throughout. Their skill in invoking a true sense of sympathy and fear despite the beautiful but often blatant use of camera is a merit to their performances. Newcomer Taylor-Joy is a true talent for holding her own against the powerhouse McAvoy whose Kevin is destined to become a classic character. Suffering from dissociative identity disorder, each of Kevin’s personalities shown on screen comes across as a distinctive being, often fooling even the audience into forgetting the innocent, playful Hedwig and the OCD afflicted paedophile Dennis are technically the same person. As the film progresses and we build to the reveal of ‘The Beast,’ Kevin’s hidden 24th personality, Shyamalan masterfully keeps us on our toes regarding his true nature. Thankfully he shows restraint in maintaining the more grounded tone rather than surprising us with a cheap twist, adding an element of rewatchability lacking in even his best works.
Despite these merits, the film often falls into the Shyamalan trap of unnatural, forced dialogue that in a second can undo any tension or investment in the plot. While nowhere near the painfulness of The Happening or After Earth, Split still fails to put faith in its visuals and feels the need to explain everything to the audience. Often it also falls into awkward, sudden humour that feels unwarranted and not in line with the otherwise extremely tense atmosphere it creates. As a result of these factors, it is easy to see why one may call the film arrogant or self-congratulatory and I would definitely agree with them in part yet, overall, I still find myself having enjoyed the film due simply to the power of the premise and performances.
Thrilling but flawed, Split seems to suffer from the same tonal shifts as its antagonist, the moments of terror undercut by Shyamalan’s awkward humour and blatant dialogue. Regardless, the tense atmosphere and a truly mesmerising performance from James McAvoy raise it above mediocrity.