It’s no secret that M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t had the most consistent career. In 1999 he arrived with a bang in a film that included the twist that blew minds across the globe with The Sixth Sense. From there he brought audiences Unbreakable and Signs, which are two of his more popular films, even though not everyone enjoyed the twists they brought. And from there his name beside a movie basically meant, “just wait for the twist at the end!”
While it may work the first few times out, it’s hard to shock and entertain audiences if they’re almost always waiting for the twist to happen, or trying to figure it out from the moment the movie begins. That’s one of the main reasons I hate when advertisements for movies use critical praise quotes along the lines of, “…with a twist that you’ll never see coming!” or, “…a jaw-dropping twist that will leave you stunned!”
Sure, maybe it left that person stunned because they were one of the first to see it and had no expectations going in. But now I’m going into the film expecting this jaw-dropping twist that I’ll never see coming, and it puts my radar on alert from the very beginning. And let’s be honest, if you’re waiting for a twist, or know one is coming, it’s much more likely that it can be figured out early on, which kind of ruins the experience.
That’s sort of the double-edged sword with Shyamalan, as his name is synonymous with plot twist. Audiences expect something major to happen in the third act of his films that they wouldn’t normally be preemptively expecting with any other writer/director. But where Shyamalan shines, and what saves him from fully falling into the “I know there’s a twist, so I’m on alert waiting for it” trap is that he’s quite a masterful storyteller more often than not. With Split, it’s that top tier storytelling through both script and visuals that stands out front and center.
Split, stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man with 23 different personalities. Some of these personalities have kidnapped three teenage girls and are holding them captive, and some of his other personalities want to stop the others from going down this dangerous path they’ve taken. It’s easy to go into more details about the plot, but really, it’s much more entertaining to experience it all first-hand without knowing much going in.
What I will say is that Split is some of Shyamalan’s best work to date. The film is completely engrossing thanks to the exhilarating storytelling and direction, beautiful art design and stunning cinematography and camerawork. Above all that, however, is the acting of one James McAvoy. There are movies that rely heavily on actors to carry the brunt of the storytelling work, but with Split, if the main character was cast incorrectly, no matter how talented the actor may have been, the movie would crumble. Luckily, McAvoy puts on an acting tour de force, and arguably the best performance of his career to date.
Kevin suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which medically means that his body chemistry actually changes depending on which personality is in control at the moment. His psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) explains this to her colleagues as a disorder in which one personality may be, say, a diabetic, or need glasses, while the others are completely healthy with no need for insulin or glasses, respectively. McAvoy handles the transformations from one personality to the next seamlessly, with little nuances that really make you believe that while it’s the same actor on screen, it’s a different character entirely, all without breaking the flow of the scene or taking the viewer out of the moment.
As a small side complaint, one thing that does take me out of the moment is when a director makes a cameo in their movies. Sometimes it’s not obvious, but in Split, Shyamalan appears as a colleague of Dr. Fletcher somewhere in the first half of the movie. Now, the scene only lasts a few minutes, but it’s enough where I was pulled out of the film and went, “Oh, there’s M. Night Shyamalan.” The other most notable case of this happening recently was Django Unchained, where Quentin Tarantino showed up for a bit part and ruined the immersion there as well. It’s a small irritation of mine, as I would think that as a director you’d want your audience fully captivated by what’s happening on screen for the entirety of your film, so to show up and pull them out for bit parts that could have easily been case otherwise and kept the story flowing smoothly is beyond me.
That small gripe aside, the acting by the main players here fits this tale perfectly. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan) stars as Casey, one of the three young girls some of Kevin’s personalities are holding captive. She continues to impress here and shows once again that the future is bright for her in Hollywood. Alongside her are Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, who play the other two girls, Claire and Marcia, both bringing their best to the table as well.
But again, it all really comes down to McAvoy, who is really the glue that holds everything together here. The chemistry he shares with everyone is just so natural, though it’s at its strongest when sharing the screen with Buckley and Taylor-Joy. It’s not something that’s very likely to happen come awards season, but McAvoy really brings out an award-worthy performance here that makes the movie worth watching, story be damned.
Luckily, the story is also unique, intriguing and fully mesmerizing (sans those few minutes you had to pop up in, Mr. Shyamalan.) In the special features, Shyamalan mentions that after having kids he began writing stories for them, but now that they’ve grown up, he wanted to get back to storytelling for himself. Emerging from that decision was one of his best films to date in Split, a topnotch thriller with a masterful performance by McAvoy that shouldn’t be missed.
The Blu-ray transfer of Split is superb, as this is a darker film, but the screen is never muddy or washed out. Everything is crisp, clean and keeps you in the moment. The same can be said for the audio work, as the film’s score, soundtrack and dialogue all come through perfectly, with no clutter or straining to hear what’s being said or done from one scene to the next.
The special features front is somewhat minimal, with a lacking audio commentary being the most notably absent feature. It would have been great, especially had they been able to get McAvoy and Shyamalan together. Alas, neither made the cut, so we get what we get.
Alternate Ending – This is a 32-second clip that’s not so much an alternate ending as an additional scene that really would’ve thrown things off at the end. You can hear a minute long intro by Shyamalan, and how this was a scene he tried to fit in multiple areas at the end, but decided against it, as it just didn’t flow. Very smart move, as it’s really just not needed at all.
Deleted Scenes – Almost 15-minutes deleted scenes that you can watch with intros from Shyamalan once again. I’ve never been a fan of deleted scenes, as you usually find out early on why they didn’t make the cut, and seeing them after rarely adds to anything. In fact, sometimes they’re what make it into a comedy film to allow for an “Extended edition” release, and often you find the jokes just become drawn out…again, why they didn’t make it into the final cut in the first place.
The Making of Split – This is the best feature on the disc, coming in at just under 10 minutes in length. It’s here that, as mentioned in the review, Shyamalan talks about growing as a writer and wanting to do movies for himself once again. We also learn how he chose his crew and how choosing the right actor for Kevin would make or break the movie.
The Many Faces of James McAvoy – This feature comes in at just over five and a half minutes, and focuses on the challenges McAvoy faced playing all the various roles, as well as the cast and crew praising him and his work on the film.
The Filmmaker’s Eye: M Night Shyamalan – A brief look at Shyamalan’s work as a writer/director and the process he goes through when doing so.
Universal Pictures Presents Split. Written & Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan. Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula. Running time: 117 Minutes. Rating: 14A. Released on Blu-ray: Apr. 18, 2017.
Tags: Anya Taylor-Joy, James McAvoy, M. Night Shyamalan, Split