M. Night Shyamalan’s stock is back on the rise after a generally warm reception to The Visit and a strong box office showing for Split. What both have in common is a scaling down of a vision that had become uncontrollable, leading to messy narratives, poor performances, and a horror film where the villain is a gentle breeze.
Kevin (James McAvoy) has dissociative identity disorder, meaning there are 23 unique personalities within his mind. Dennis is the most dominant physically, broad shoulders and commanding presence and all, and has crippling OCD; Patricia is tactful and composed; Hedwig is a nine year old with a lisp who has just learned a new word and keeps using it. We never see all 23 but we do see flashes of some of the others, while those who keep taking centre stage speak of a new personality developing referred to as The Beast.
Under one of his more malevolent personalities Kevin kidnaps three girls, including Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey. Kept in a cell, he visits them for different reasons – Hedwig has a child’s curiosity, while Dennis is the one in control.
Those familiar with Shyamalan will be used to keeping an eye out for clues. Casey’s flashbacks show her at a young age hunting with her dad and uncle, while Kevin’s meetings with his psychologist add depth to his internal struggle that seems to be getting worse. Even The Visit, low-key as it was, had a reveal of sorts.
It creates a sort of meta-tension. In this post-Cabin in the Woods world horror films have become either fiercely devoted to their premise or they are presented with a cheeky grin as they prepare to pull the rug out from under you. You ask the obvious tropes first – is Casey going to be a final girl, will The Beast be a literal or figurative entity if it has the chance to appear – but we also live in a post-10 Cloverfield Lane world, where the mere delivery of that film itself acted as a shock. The fight in Kevin’s head is akin to the viewer’s trying to put a finger on exactly what is happening, and what will happen.
Despite the complexity of its antagonist, the plot itself is a little by the numbers. It is all increasing stakes and decreasing hopes. It also plods a little at times when suspense becomes cinematic, making it unbelievable. But, James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy are so good that you can forgive it certain shortcomings. McAvoy switches back and forth between personalities with a real elegance, adjusting his shoulders, eyes, speech, clothes, and even how commanding his presence is depending on who has control of Kevin at that point in time. Taylor-Joy was spellbinding in The Witch, and here she has a real fire that is necessary to keep up with her captor.
A film’s ending can put what preceded it into focus. Split raises a lot of questions and offers frustratingly few answers, but takes a gamble with its final scene and offers something else entirely. It is impossible to say whether it objectively works; for some it is guaranteed to cause confusion. For me, it confirmed a niggling suspicion that kept asking me to indulge it during the film. For me, it worked, and I commend it for taking the risk.
Split is an improvement on The Visit, and is remarkably entertaining when firing on all cylinders. The two central performances help keep its head above water when it slows down, and Kevin is an interesting enough character that you become invested in his arc almost immediately. As with any Shyamalan film, avoid spoilers but prepare to discuss the ending, and with his redemption in full swing, Split is a good time indeed.