As a birthday party draws to a close it seems like some socially awkward behaviour is the only thing that’s going to ruin the day for teenagers Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Hayley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Things end up getting a whole lot worse though, when all three of them are abducted by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). The girls soon discover that they’ve not just been abducted by Kevin but by all 23 of his personalities, as they try to escape before his 24th personality, known only as ‘The Beast’ can surface.
Split’s writer and director M. Night Shyamalan has had an interesting career trajectory. For me he’ll always be the guy who made some great films in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with Unbreakable being one of my absolute favourite films and certainly one of the best superhero movies ever made. Then things went a little off the boil as Shyamalan began on a series of absolute stinkers starting with The Village, getting steadily worse with The Lady in the Water through to, what I’m told is, one of the worst films of all time in The Last Airbender. I still can’t bring myself to watch The Last Airbender for fear that it’ll ruin Avatar for me forever. It seemed like we might never get a good film from Shyamalan ever again, but it’s fair to say that Split was more than a little bit of a pleasant surprise.
I think the most important thing to say about Split is that it’s best to go in seeing it as little as possible. There are some twists and turns that are best seen with fresh eyes and so I will do my best to steer clear of any major plot spoilers.
After a bit of a career detour I think that Split sees Shyamalan going back to what he does best, but with a little bit of a new take on his old habits. This is a film where the plot is actually secondary to the characters and their development, just like Unbreakable, Signs and The Sixth Sense to varying degrees.
It would be hard to talk too much about Split without focusing on James McAvoy’s central performance as Kevin, and a whole host of other identities. In other hands this could have been a ridiculously over the top performance that could have very easily descended into parody. While McAvoy certainly does have a good time with the role, the way that he conveys all of the different personalities is really, really well done. He manages to convey really subtle changes in the personality in the driving seat with the raise of an eyebrow or a curl of the lip. It’s a really great performance, for the most part, that manages to be funny, terrifying, charming and heartbreaking all at the same time.
It’s not just McAvoy giving a solid performance though. Anya Taylor-Joy does a really good job as Casey. As the story progresses we get to learn a little bit more about Casey’s past and things become a little more than they might first appear. She seems to slowly learn over the course of the film that the only way to really survive her captor is to try and understand what’s really going on in his (their) head(s). It’s a testament to her that she manages to hold her own against a McAvoy performance that is pretty much the definition of scene stealing.
I really enjoyed Split a lot more than I thought I would. I’d like to think that this could be the start of the M. Night Shyamalanaissance and he’ll finally get back on track. The film isn’t without issues, the other girls don’t really get a lot to do and kind of fall by the wayside. It would have been interesting to see a little more to their characters, rather than them being entirely disposable. It’s a solid thriller and a definite return to form, even if Shyamalan has slightly altered his template, without the need for groundbreaking twists. Instead this is a thriller that puts the characters and their journeys (well two of them anyway) front and centre. However, as solid as the film is for me the last 5 minutes of the film elevated it from a good thriller to a great film. Definitely worth watching, especially if you have enjoyed any of Shyamalan’s previous films but do try to go in knowing as little as possible.