M. Night Shyamalan is on something of a mini-comeback lately. Ever since “The Village” came out, he’s been known as a bomb maker; cranking out disastrous movie after disastrous movie with zero sign of changing his style or love for overplayed “twist endings.” After he released “The Visit,” some have said he’s slowly getting his Shyamalan magic back and with a premise as crazy (pun intended) as this one, one cannot deny at least a bit of morbid curiosity to see if he really is back in film making form. Being someone who has personal experience and passion in the world of psychology, I was even more curious to see what new ground “Split” was going to literally and figuratively break.
While out on a shopping trip, three girls (Anya Taylor Joy, Jessica Sula, and Haley Lu Richardson) are kidnapped by a man with 24 different personalities living in his head (James McAvoy). He takes them to an underground prison and is keeping them for some sinister purpose. Now the girls must try and determine which personalities will help them and which are not to be trusted before the true purpose of their being there is revealed. Certain movies or TV shows sometimes have certain roles that, once acquired, will become the ideal vehicle to truly display an actor’s wide range of performances and capabilities like never before. Eliza Dushku got it in the shortly lived series “Dollhouse,” Sharlto Copely got a similar role in “Hardcore Henry” and now James McAvoy gets the chance to tell everyone what many already knew: he’s an incredible talent.
This truly a performance that deserves to be recognized and appreciated by every award industry, but sadly, because it’s a “popular film” it’s going to get snubbed and passed up for something that Sundance would be showing. McAvoy truly disappears into each and every personality this character suffers from, utilizing a brilliant mix of subtle and (at times) grandiose quirks and features to indicate who is in charge of the body at this time. It’s a very simple plot utilizing a highly complex character angle that makes it far above and beyond your typical kidnap/survivor girl situations. I knew McAvoy was talented from his work in the prequel “X-men” films, but this is a whole new level of outstanding that I didn’t think was possible.
However, as usual with a Shyamalan picture, there are some drastically bizarre choices and dialog that make utterly no sense and invoke more humor than horror. For instance, Casey (the lead girl played by Taylor) is heavily set up as the de facto survivor; being the only one not cowering or whimpering throughout the picture. She’s a tough, compelling lead…but she’s saddled with this rather pointless backstory about some unfortunate family business with one of her relatives. It’s dark and gives an element of tragedy to the character, but its inclusion feels forced and out of place with anything else that’s going on. The other girls are reduced to wallpaper so quickly, you often forget there were 3 girls taken in the first place. Absolutely no effort was made to develop these girls other than cannon fodder without any personality. The camera barely even focuses on them, like Shyamalan kept pushing them out of frame.
It’s an unfortunate and damaging thing to see; having such a commanding and powerful performance from McAvoy, but then not giving a damn to develop your supporting cast enough just makes it look like Shyamalan didn’t want them there in the first place. On top of that, the trademark twist is back in full freaky form and I won’t say what it is, however, I will tell you it completely changes the entire perspective of how this film treats psychology and turns it into something else. It’s a neat trick to include, but frankly, I strongly believe this movie would have been just fine (if not better) had this twist been left out. It was going just fine without this extra element being mixed in, it would have worked just as well without it…but no…it’s in there and while it doesn’t make me mad, it just disappoints me.