The sheer ambition of “Split” screams promise. The film runs the risk of being a thriller with a party-trick twist, but it’d be too soon to judge it on the basis only of patterns. Yes, this is an M. Night Shyamalan film. Yes, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” gave us trust issues. Yes, “The Visit” may not have been the perfect directorial return everyone needed. Shyamalan’s unpredictability—a pleasant surprise or a disastrous outcome, both when you’d least expect it—still rings in a silly sense of hope, if not anything else.
On the surface, “Split” sounds like the gimmicky thriller that the director’s harshest critics detest the most; it’s a trademark that has lasted through his best and worst creations. An abduction occurs, and the captor is quite the “extraordinary”—as one of the characters would prefer to address him by—specimen. The movie aims to terrify alright, but not for the reasons a potential viewer would surmise. Its horrific unraveling comes not from the act and aftermath of abduction itself but from where the captor and one of its captives are coming.
“Split” may be yet another addition to the list of a rising number of films tackling abuse over the last decade, but—surprisingly—it’s a lot subtler than you’d expect. James McAvoy (“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” 2014) plays a man with as many as twenty-three split personalities, each designed to help its “host” body and soul cope mentally. As his urgent, antsy sessions with his psychiatrist evolve—or devolve, viewers can understand his many personalities much better depending on how one sees it. (They’ll possibly even empathize with the darker ones.)
Some qualms viewers may have are the final twist and establishing the protagonist’s backstory. Those may not be entirely wrong superficially. As the story continues to rewind to episodes that set in motion demons she continues to grapple with, the consistency of Split’s narrative pace is abruptly shaken. However, what’s important to realize is the necessity of the story and its telling. Survivors of abuse who are thrown back into situations that scream danger—both physical and emotional—scramble back into their past to understand how to survive a forthcoming obstacle. It may or may not be an effective method, but it’s the only reflex one is often left with.
Those aren’t the only shaky moments, though. The dialogues and monologs might be exceptionally well-written in conversational exchanges. Still, they can’t seem to pull through on a few crucial expository scenes or dramatic poetry as well as they should. Thankfully, the cast is competent enough to own literally every line. McAvoy, in particular, delivers a frighteningly knockout performance as his many personalities. He might be a “Patricia” (the unnerving yet soft-spoken middle-aged woman) one moment, a “Barry” (the fashion designer) the other, and a “Dennis” (a pervert and clean-freak) or “Hedwig” (a nine-year-old with a lisp) the next. But every time he dons his character’s varied personas, he never misses a single step.
Facing him off is Anya Taylor-Joy, who is sharp, nuanced, and can stand up to his towering act. Betty Buckley brings forth subtlety, and Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, while not entirely convincing, pull some much-needed weight in the film. Each actor is a part of their contained setups. Their image systems are only complemented by their distinct visual palettes. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis (“It Follows,” 2015) understands this perfectly, playing with light, space, and movement to help viewers understand both locations the narrative takes them to.
“Split” is the director’s resounding comeback we’ve all been waiting for. It may not be as perfect as “Unbreakable”—possibly his only flawless film to date. Yet it dazzles and terrifies you enough to think about the many emotional implications of its three central characters. Despite some cringe-worthy narrative patches that reek of Shyamalan’s indulgence, its power is its dogged resilience to survive. But that’s what makes the film so fantastic; it boasts the kind of passion one doesn’t constantly witness in mainstream thriller filmmaking these days.
For a director’s dazzling return to form, an actor’s brilliant performance, and—if not anything else—a smartly underplayed commentary on the aftermath of abuse, “Split” needs to be watched. It’s a January movie, alright, but have some faith. It’s an outlier in a month of predictably disappointing norms.