This suspenseful and unsettling thriller is a welcome return to form for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.
In 2013 three women - Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight - escaped from a home in Cleveland, Ohio, then shocked the world by revealing they'd been kidnapped and kept prisoners by one man there for over a decade. It’s hard not think that, at least in some small way, their harrowing tale didn’t at least play some part in forming the basis for writer/director M Knight Shyamalan’s latest thriller Split, for it begins in a very similar fashion. Three young girls, all in their teens, are drugged and abducted in broad daylight outside of a shopping mall, only to wake up imprisoned in a bunker with no idea where they are, who took them or why.
Until, that is, they meet Dennis.
Played by James McAvoy, Dennis is a cold, meticulous and physically brutal force - nothing like Patricia, the matronly British lady (also played by James McAvoy), who assures the girls they’ll not be touched or harmed in any way. Then there’s Hedwig (played by...James McAvoy) who’s just a small boy who loves to dance to Kanye, and Barry (James McAvoy) a fashion designer constantly reassuring his shrink that everything’s under control and…well…you get the idea. Rest assured, however - this isn’t some sort of Eddie Murphy costume romp where he's playing every character. Rather, McAvoy is, in a sense, Legion - a collective of 23 distinct personalities competing for ’the light’ within the body of one man named Kevin, and the result is entirely unsettling. Within this extraordinary case of DID (dissociative identity disorder), some personalities want the girls freed, whilst others appear to be preparing them for the arrival of what they only refer to as ‘the beast’ - the as yet unseen 24th identity.
The burden of carrying the film, unsurprisingly, sits almost exclusively with McAvoy, whose performs more than rises to the challenge. Shyamalan actually filmed each of Kevin's identities as if they were separate actors and the technique pays off. Each one feels different, and you soon think of them accordingly. Some you fear, others you warm to and none feel at all like the actor playing them.
The other performance of note comes from Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as Casey - the 'outsider' of the three kidnapped girls. Introduced as a loner from the opening scene, Casey resists the others' suggestions of attempting an escape in favour of befriending the more approachable identities within Kevin, creating additional conflict in an environment already dripping with tension. Taylor-Joy's a terrific actress with a long future ahead of her, and it’s her scenes with McAvoy where Split is at its best. Filmed almost entirely in extreme closeup (an unsettling and claustrophobic device that condemns audiences to forever wonder what unseen menace might be lurking just off screen), McAvoy’s unpredictability keeps the pace high, while Taylor-Joy’s enormous, soulful eyes speak volumes when words aren't (or can't) be said.
Ever since The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been plagued by the expectation that his films will feature an astounding and unpickable twist; something upon which he has largely failed to deliver in all subsequent outings. Depending on your perspective, the finale of Split either sheds itself of that expectation entirely or doubles down and hits you with something even larger. Maybe it's both. Regardless, the experience of Split is one driven not by a compulsion to 'pick the ending', but rather to marvel upon (and fear) the extraordinary existence of someone whose cognitive separation is so extreme he’s able to physically change as well as mentally. It’s a solid thriller, and almost certainly Shyamalan’s best film since his first. There are some gaping potholes, and Shyamalan continues to break the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule by telling, then showing throughout the film, but in all it’s a welcome return to form and an exciting precursor to what is absolutely coming next.