“Split” (2017): M. Night Shyamalan and James McAvoy for the Win

M. Night Shyamalan and Blumhouse Productions team up once again to provide horror fans with a low budget genre exploration of the bizarre with Split. The film follows Kevin (James McAvoy) a man with 23 different personalities as on his other personalities kidnaps three teen girls. While the film is not entirely successful in its set up and the pay off on that set up, it does provide a provocative and fascinating look into what makes Kevin tick. It is not a realistic look at dissociative  identity  disorder (DID) but rather a suspenseful yarn that launches off into its own ideas and directions. Much like how Shyamalan handled dementia in The Visit, his handling of Kevin could be taken as offensive if it were not for a riveting performance from James McAvoy and the focused – often exposition heavy – counter role of his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). The more the film explores the inner politics of  two of Kevin’s more active identities,  Dennis and Patricia, the more successful the film becomes. On the flip side, the film explores – to a lesser degree – the mental mechanics of Dennis’ victim Casey Cook, played by rising horror actress Anya Taylor-Joy. Shyamalan’s script often battles its own struggle for identity on whether to dive deeper into Kevin’s issues or the nature of Casey’s history within the flashbacks. At times, Split gets lost in the two stories. In the end, McAvoy wins and the film benefits from his terrific performance especially in the scenes where Dr. Fletcher challenges which identity she is addressing.

The film opens as friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) discuss with Claire’s father (Neal Huff) what to do with their other friend Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy) – the odd girl in school – who doesn’t have a ride home.  Reluctantly, Casey accepts their offer and they head to car to leave. Before they can all get in the car, Dennis (James McAvoy) kidnaps the three girls leaving the father  unconscious  in the parking lot. They awaken in a cell-like room with one door and no windows and a trio of voices on the other side of the wall. Dennis is not alone, he resides along with Patricia and Hedwig, three personalities living in a single body. What they don’t know is that these are just three of the personalities living in Kevin Wendell Crumb’s body. But what they do learn is that they are captive to be served up for something known as “The Beast.”

Split belongs to the talented James McAvoy who dives into each of his performances with glee and enthusiasm. While some of the scenes are played to  elevated  extremes, the results are undeniably spectacular. When Patricia is first revealed, the reaction of the audience is not too far from the shock and confusion seen on Anya Taylor-Joy’s face as she backs away in horror. Not long after, Shyamalan introduces Kevin’s 9-year old identity Hedwig, providing McAvoy with so much scenery to chew upon. It is fantastic. Later, we are introduced to Barry, a rather flamboyant identity, as he visits their psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher. This is where McAvoy truly shines as he is called upon to switch from one role to another in front of our eyes. It is as powerful as John Barrymore, Spencer Tracey, or Fredric March do with their performances in each of their versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. McAvoy shifts his posture, his body language, his vocal tone, his language, and his inflection. The facial feature shifts alone are worth observing. Later in the film, he is able to get far more physical and gives that his all as well. McAvoy is the reason to see Split, and that is perfectly fine.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey Cook is on the other side of the story as she struggles to escape captivity. Her performance is quiet, almost meditative. She never acts in haste, assessing the situation with stealth and precision. She approaches Casey in Split much like she approached Thomasin in The Witch. If it were not for the clear indication that there is something deep going on behind those distinct eyes of hers, it would be easy to cast her performance as too easy or uncomplicated. That would be doing it a grave injustice. M. Night Shyamalan’s script provides a series of flashbacks that reveal her past and the nature of reaction to the environment surrounding her. Casey’s fight for survival is decidedly different than those of Marcia and Claire. The more the film reveals those hidden secrets the more her story and Kevin’s story collide. While Taylor-Joy borders on being too subdued as Casey, she fuels the nightmare quality of story and allows the contrast of her character to Kevin’s to be  simultaneously  eerily similar and extremely different.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Betty Buckley in a scene from, “Split.” (Universal Pictures via AP)

As a director, M. Night Shyamalan is hitting a second stride after a string of cinematic disappointments, pairing this with his successful recent hit, The Visit. It smells like an authentic comeback. Some of his best shots are simple long focused shots on his stars McAvoy and Taylor-Joy. He also treats his camera as the audience’s personal investigator as it swoops into scenes examining the location and its dressings or following a character allowing their choices and decisions to slowly reveal what may – or may not – be happening behind their tricky little minds. It’s an impressive turn behind the camera once again for Shyamalan. On the script side, he continues to sharpen his tricks and misdirections but struggles with dialog from time to time as characters either have to rattle off mounds of exposition once again (poor Dr. Fletcher) or lines of dialog that approach too silly to take seriously. To no one’s surprise, he is up to his old tricks with his twist endings. He approaches the twists in Split with a controlled eye and pen. One of the twists doesn’t even feel like a twist at first…until you think about it fully long after the film is over – which is rather  intriguing. Split is  one of M. Night Shyamalan’s better films.

As it seems of late, M. Night Shyamalan is currently forced to battle public perception of his past work. That, combined with the stigma of a January release, Split is a spectacular triumph. The film delivers on its lead performance alone with James McAvoy providing a fascinating look at a series of multiple personalities. He often is displaying a number of the  personalities contemporaneous as they speak in one way but slightly behave in another. This is evident as Barry is in Dr. Fletcher’s office but displaying Kevin’s OCD, rearranging items on her various tables or when Patricia suddenly complains about the sandwich being cut unevenly. When the time comes for his 24th personality to emerge, his facial expressions are chilling and unnerving. Anya Taylor-Joy is far more subdued with the quiet, constrained role of Casey Cook. The direction is signature Shyamalan and the twists are entertaining, with one in particular subverting the entire film with its implications. Split is also a film that improves the more time sits between watching the film and reflecting upon its final message. Split is easily a  M. Night Shyamalan film that will be fondly remembered.

Split 3.3 out of 5 stars (3.3 / 5)

Doc Rotten
Editor-In-Chief / Founder / Podcast Producer at Horror News Radio
Doc Rotten is the founder of Gruesome Magazine. He is also a film critic for Gruesome Magazine and the podcast host & producer for Horror News Radio, Monster Movie Podcast, Decades of Horror: 1970s, The American Horror Story Fan Podcast and Hannibal Fan Podcast. He is also co-host of the Dracula podcast on TV TALK and is a contributing reviewer for HorrorNews.Net and Widescreen Warrior.

Doc a lifelong fan of horror films, sci-fi flicks and monster movies first discovering Universal Monsters and Planet of the Apes as a young child in the 1970's searching out every issue of Famous Monster of Filmland (and, later, Fangoria). Favorite films include Jaws, The Car, The Birds, The Tingler, Vampire Circus and The Exorcist. Still a huge fan of horror films from the 70s, Doc continues consuming horror films to this day for the site, for the podcasts and for the fun of it all.