Poor M. Night Shyamalan. After being thrust onto the Hollywood scene following his success with The Sixth Sense, the young talent - once touted as being the next Spielberg - was subject to one of the most notorious career fall-outs in recent cinematic history. No director was in more dire need of a revival at this point, and despite finding mild success with his low budget found footage flick The Visit (I myself was no fan of that film), I feel confident in saying that Split, in which three young girls are kidnapped by a man whose mind houses 23 distinct personalities, was just the rebirth he needed.
After disastrous big-budget for-hire jobs like The Last Airbender and After Earth, Shyamalan's shift to sub-ten million dollar movies was exactly what he needed. As someone with an affinity for the supernatural and horror, Shyamalan is often at his best when working with simple and intimate stories that cater to those strengths. With Lady in the Water having veered him into fantastical territory that was well outside of his comfort zone, Split allows him to course correct by stripping himself back to basics. The mood of Split is one based on tightly wound tension, creating a visceral and emotionally heated blend between psychological thriller and horror, all the while managing to wring out some soul and humanity in spite of the terrifying events, progressively piecing together mysteries inside the minds of thoroughly broken characters, and their ideas of their own self-worth. And better yet, it's a modern horror film that doesn't rely on *any* jump scares. How rare is that?
Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress whose filmography I haven't taken kindly to, is a superb leading lady for the film, holding it all together as she calmly weighs her options in a situation she doesn't understand, and whose inner damage control may not be too far off from her kidnapper Kevin, played by James McAvoy.
Believe me, if this movie belongs to anyone, it's James McAvoy. In careless hands, the DID aspects could have been played as exploitative or as a grating joke, but McAvoy is wise in how he balances out the portrayal, making for an at once horrifying and unhinged presence that intimidates with every action, but also bleeds with great sympathy and tragic pity. Yet he also realizes that there is this touch of silliness to it, that create these effective places to lighten the movie's mood with humor, as evidenced with his Hedwig persona whose lisp and childish innocence bring some great laughs to the table. McAvoy is also very meticulous in his attention to the physicality of the distinct personalities, creating these subtle mannerisms and body ticks to signify who's in "the light" at any given moment, even before the movie makes it verbally clear, and makes his actions wildly unpredictable as a result. McAvoy is (forgive the pun) beastly in how he attacks the role, and he's sure to go down as one of the year's best leading performances.
That said, the film isn't perfect. Shyamalan's dialogue choices are not always strong, and Taylor-Joy's co-stars Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula aren't as engaging as her, but otherwise this is easily Shyamalan's best film since his days with The Village. And by the way, how fantastic is that ending?
**** / *****