M. Night Shyamalan's career has been defined by peaks of his early days (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs) and troughs of recent times (The Last Airbender, The Happening and the god awful After Earth), so Split provides a rich opportunity to prove himself as the visionary director he was once seen as becoming. Co-producing the film alongside Jason Blum's Blumhouse, Split is a psychological horror-thriller film, a sub-genre that feel greatly disregarded of recent years, so it's no surprise that the film opened to mammoth box office dollars and a positive critical reception over the weekend. Is the film, starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, a return to form for Shyamalan or another major misfire from the once promising director?
When three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and outsider Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnsapped by "Dennis", one of 23 split personalities inhabiting the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), they are held in his underground cellar. Savvy Casey decides to befriend the personalities and use their weaknesses to achieve their freedom or risk facing the rumoured 24th personality, "the Beast". Psychiatrist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) has growing concerns for Kevin's safety and believes that the psychological unbalance could lead to the final, dangerous personality being unleashed. It's an admittedly ludicrous plot line but your enjoyment in Split partly rests on whether you can accept its absurd story and the undeniable fun it provides.
First and foremost, most of Split's success rests on the impressive range of James McAvoy. His versatile performance as Kevin, a man with twenty-three known, distinct personalities including 'Barry', 'Patrica', 'Dennis' and 'Hedwig', all of whom appear periodically throughout the film when they are given their time in the 'spotlight', is great. Clearly having fun with the performance, he is fearless and committed as the various branches of Kevin's characters and paints them as individuals well, which is one of the biggest hurdles for the story to overcome; he is no Tatiana Maslany but it is a solid and considered performance. Anya Taylor-Joy proves not only to be leading the newest generation of scream queens (The Witch and Morgan in the past twelve months alone prove just as much) but a genuine rising star too, with yet another captivating and convincing performance. Her character's history is well-written and conceptualised with brief flashbacks fleshing out the teenager and explaining her actions, adding further reasons to root for this character - although it does feel a little manipulative on occasions. Betty Buckley's character brings some clarity to the picture (where it can be cleared up, that is) and gives the film the context it really needs in an effective enough manner.
Shyamalan gets the ball rolling with a productive first act that indeed crafts an intense and atmospheric tone that begins to deliver on the promise of its intriguing premise; from there on, it gradually heads down hill. Despite a firm understanding of the twists and turns before heading into the film, with a general gist of what is to expect from spoiler-heavy trailers, the reveal of the personalities is still well-realised and effective, slowly developing the girls' understanding of their dire situation that works all the more profoundly because of the dramatic irony utilised. It manages to isolate the girls even more than they already are, giving them a vulnerability that encourages you to root for them over the half-criminal, half-victim Kevin, despite his somewhat innocence in all of this. It plays with its thematic content incredibly well, with the themes of 'survival' and 'victim' interlaced throughout the picture, setting off an unusual horror dynamic and tone to explore. One scene at the beginning of the film wonderfully plays with some framing techniques, splitting its three female characters to suggest some hidden development still to come; it doesn't grow into anything but sets that uneasy tone the first act nails so ably.
But then the cracks begin to emerge and the film begins to splinter. Shyamalan generally discovers some interesting shots and discussion points within the film but they never fruitful mature into anything meaningful due to lacklustre scrip work. The girls are split up, the themes become a little uncomfortable and poorly handled and the narrative finds itself chopping and changing focus, and plot strands emerge that make little to no sense whatsoever. There is little sense of cohesion from the first act onwards, in fact, asides from the impressive score that attempts to bring it all together. It's been marketed as a psychological horror-thriller but it is never scary enough or thrilling enough to warrant that tag; in fact, I heard far more laughs than screams or gasps in the busy screening. More often than not, it struggles to make an impact and I'd go as far as saying that the middle act is completely forgettable and, shockingly, fails to find an identity of its own. It's already slim 117 minute runtime feels too long and Split treads water more often than it should, interrupting the pace and intensity in that middle stretch. It's third and final act manages to reignite some of the sparks that made the first act so compelling but it doesn't have enough kindling and substance to keep it burning after a dull second stretch. It feels more like a showreel for McAvoy's great talent and a showcase to affirm that Shyamalan still has what it takes to become the promising director his early filmography lead you to believe.
As with any general split, it starts off small and controlled and eventually frays at the edges, with its problems and flaws growing increasingly difficult to ignore. A victim of a terrific central premise, it demonstrates signs of delivering the potential and promise teased in the first act alone - but it eventually becomes too unfocused and complex for the sake of doing so. If we stuck with the idea of Casey attempting to talk to each of the identities, uncovering their flaws and exploiting their weaknesses, it would perhaps be a far superior horror-thriller, one fuelled by a smartness and sophistication; instead, it's rather run of the mill, ludicrous and frustrating popcorn flick that botches its climax with an uncomfortable development and shoehorned twist. It becomes a little laughable and that is the one place you never want to strand your horror film, ultimately feeling tonally unbalanced. Shyamalan The Director does decent things here but Shyamalan The Screenwriter lets him down - it's almost as if he is suffering from his own split.
Summary: Split has all the markings of an effective psychological horror-thriller film, but some weak writing and uncomfortable themes botch its second (and most of its third) act, instead making it a mediocre genre entry only lifted by its three solid performances and a little creativity from Shyamalan.
Highlight: Performances are decent enough and the first act is genuinely interesting.