M. Night Shyamalan erupted onto the scene with 1999’s The Sixth Sense and has a string of semi-hits and full-on flops ever sense. For many, Shyamalan’s signature “twist” ending is a parody of what it once was because it has become utterly expected. In order for the twist to work, audience needs to be kept off their guard. The latest written-directed Shyamalan film, Split, largely shatters expectations, becoming the most straight-forward thriller in his oeuvre and a showcase for all of the actors involved.
Here’s what you need to know going in: Three girls are abducted by a mysterious man (James McAvoy) with multiple personalities, who informs them they will be sacrificed to “The Beast”. Aware that time is running out, the girls rush to secure their safety using patience and knowledge as their best weapons.
Split wastes little time setting the stage and it’s all the stronger for it. Rather than taking up precious time diving into the lives of the girls, Split provides a small piece of exposition to identify each girl and their relationship to each other, right before they are taken. The explanation for why these specific girls are taken is teased out and broken up throughout a three-tiered narrative. Fracturing is a running theme throughout Split in its visual style and the characters, so it makes sense to apply this to the narrative. The main story – the A Tier – focuses on the girls, in which Shyamalan utilizes natural moments to escalate tension. Time and again, the peril feels real because the girls make plausible decisions, creating consequences that follow also feel reasonable. The B Tier, serving initially as a tension-breaker and exposition provider, focuses on our mystery man and his psychologist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley). Following Dr. Fletcher, the audience learns more about the mystery man without infusing some form of ridiculous discovery into the A Tier. This enables the audience to learn more without breaking the suspension of disbelief; concurrently learning more about Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and gaining some sympathy for McAvoy’s mystery man. Lastly, in the C Tier, Shyamalan offers audiences insight into how, of the three girls, Casey Cookie (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems the only one able to maintain composure.
While the tiered narrative serves the story well, a large part of what makes Split unsettling is the approach to perspective. Using a cinematography style befitting experimental indie films, director of photography Mike Gioulakis and Shyamalan tend to forgo long shots in favor of close-ups that are often off-center or framed in an irregular manner. This results in characters coming into-and-out of frame consistently, forcing the audience to remain subject to only what they see and infer the rest. The fracturing of visual expectations immediately puts audiences on guard while simultaneously creating a voyeuristic sensation. This push-pull of information titillates and frustrates as audiences can only peer into portions of the film. In many respects, this redaction of information ratchets the tension for the audience while providing a showcase for the characters’ distress as well.
Bringing all of this to life is a rounded cast of actors bringing their A-game. At the forefront is McAvoy who seamlessly transitions from personality to personality using changes in posture, gesture, vocal delivery, and facial contortion. Each personality on display is specific, which not only makes tracking them easier, but highlights the immense talent of McAvoy. Nothing feels like parody, which is essential to making the character at once terrifying and sympathetic. A good antagonist requires a strong protagonist and audiences are given four in the three abductees and Dr. Fletcher. Taylor-Joy’s Casey, Haley Lu Richardson’s Claire, and Jessica Sula’ Marcia all bare the marks of a Final Girl. In their own ways, they are each resistant, forceful, and thoughtful; refusing to play the hapless victim. While each deliver a commendable performance, Taylor-Joy is the stand-out. As her back story is fleshed out, a seemingly dour, combative Casey is revealed to be more than she seems, making the subtle nuance of Taylor-Joy’s performance all the more impactful and evocative. Finally, Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher balances maternal care with professional acumen, conveying a sympathetic, whole character who cares deeply for the mental health and wellbeing of McAvoy’s mystery man.
One point of contention will be the depiction of DID throughout the picture. In an example of a storyteller taking liberties with fact, McAvoy’s mystery man suffers from a condition that is largely considered to be a false diagnosis. This is important to note, even as Shyamalan takes great pains to portray Dr. Fletcher as an advocate for both DID as a real diagnosis and her patient, the mystery man. While larger audiences are likely to skip over this portion, it’s admirable of Shyamalan to try to ensure an honest presentation/explanation of DID, even if it’s mostly as a narrative tool. That said, as a narrative tool, it’s incredibly successful. As previously mentioned, the discussion of mental illness falls within the B Tier narrative, and, although seeming initially insignficant, reveals itself to present significant motivations and critical information for the final act. Most importantly, the focus on mental illness opens the door for the underlying propelling motive both Fletcher and her patient seek, which is a desire for legitimacy.
Split very easily could have been reduced to a B-List scifi film, but the film rises to occasion becoming a tense thriller, likely one of the best of the year. Narratively interesting, visual compelling, and packed with actors at the top of their craft, Split is a film that shouldn’t be missed. M. Night Shyamalan demonstrates he can once again tell a compelling story that will leaves audiences begging for more. Do keep in mind, this is a Shyamalan film, so there is a twist – you’ll never see coming and it’s glorious.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.