Originally published on The National Student on 18/01/17.
With a little help from a top class leading duo, twist-master M. Night Shyamalan delivers his most involving, unique and genuinely creepy film in years.
Despite rocketing straight to fame off the back of two of the most original thrillers around in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Shyamalan’s career hit the skids fairly quickly. What was once watchable quickly became painfully silly, and a few seriously dodgy blockbuster attempts later (we don’t talk about The Last Airbender), his jig was pretty much up almost as quickly as it had begun.
But to his credit, the veteran director never gave up, and here we are some years later, with a brand new, entirely original, back to basics and relatively low-budget thrill-fest, that leans more on neat characterisation and phenomenal performances than it does on the director’s trademark twists and outlandish revelations.
Split takes a fairly simple premise, and very cleverly runs with it. A disturbed loner (James McAvoy) kidnaps a trio of teen girls from a nearby shopping mall and locks them in his heavily fortified basement. Then, to make matters slightly more interesting, we quickly find that McAvoy isn’t one character at all, but many; a mentally ill victim of abuse whose mind has been painstakingly split into over 20 different personalities, of varying ages, genders and ideals. And some have dark plans for the girls in question.
This reveal, might we add, isn’t one of Shyamalan’s famous plot twists either. In fact, it’s merely just the set-up, and what ensues over the following two hours (the director’s longest cut to date) only gets more expansive and disturbing from there.
There’s none of the frustrating plodding or thoughtless signposting of The Village, none of the fruitless jump-scares or cheap nastiness of The Visit; Split is just a sincerely dark and foreboding lesson in how to very gently push the envelope, bit by bit. This is the most patient and graceful Shyamalan has been in a long, long time and it really does show.
A large part of this is obviously McAvoy’s central performance; a role that demands both an inherent eeriness, and a general sense of gusto that the young Scot brings along happily. It’s not quite as tortured or subtle as his turn in Filth, and some late-in-the-game physicality doesn’t play off half as well as it really should, but on the whole it’s a thoroughly creepy (and endlessly entertaining) performance from one of Hollywood’s most varied and fascinating actors.
Although it’s worth adding that McAvoy’s role wouldn’t work nearly as well without the clever duality of his on-screen sparks with young up-starter (and recent BAFTA nominee) Anya Taylor-Joy. The most curious of the three abductees, Taylor-Joy’s Casey is just as much the focus here as McAvoy’s more obviously wild-eyed villain (if you can indeed call him that), and her turn is equally as important, if significantly more down-played.
Together the pair make up an inner-monologue that really turns the tables on the demonising role the horror genre often plays in matters of mental health. Not only are they the most expressive and dramatically interesting characters on screen, they’re also the emotional centre. This isn’t your classic “crazy guy gone rogue” scenario, in fact, when all’s finally been revealed and the cards are on the table, it’s very far from it.
This of course means that, in usual Shyamalan fashion, Split is a tad more eloquent than the standard psycho-killer horror many might be expecting. Aside from the set-up, there are few of the expected tropes or jumps and much more development in areas that usually go unexplored.
As usual with off-book experiments like this, some off-shoots work and others really don’t, slowing things down quite considerably, and showing off just how choppy and formal Shyamalan’s dialogue often is. But the overall feeling is still much more one of relief; relief that someone’s still actually trying to break the mould in the mainstream sandbox, rather than playing with the same dated box of scares time and time again.
True, Split can be thoroughly unusual at times, and some of its more academic ventures (largely involving Betty Buckley’s therapist) push on the narrative brakes a little too often, but between its standout lead pairing and Shyamalan’s confidence with the subject matter, the resulting thriller is something really quite original and very unexpected.
For the first time since Unbreakable, it feels like the much maligned director has made something a bit more grown up. And whilst there is still an absolute corker of a final nod, Split isn’t very dependent on it at all, happily (and successfully) rotating its story almost entirely around character instead.
In fact, with Split it looks like the Shyamalan renaissance we were all promised several years ago might finally be on the cards. Fans should keep their eyes peeled: there’s something very special on the horizon.
Split is out in UK cinemas from Friday.