Director M. Night Shyamalan has a track record that will make you scratch your head. He’s the man behind the lens for darn good films, like The Sixth Sense and Signs. Then, there’s the other end of Shyamalan’s spectrum, which includes mediocre-to-horrible films, like The Lady in the Water, The Happening and After Earth.
Luckily, Split doesn’t fall into the latter category and holds up well for an M. Night film, proving to be his most solid film since Signs.
The thriller — not horror, as a gentleman in my theater proclaimed prior to the screening — wastes no time. Our three damsels-in-distress, teenagers Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), are at a lunch date among other classmates. Casey is pegged as the “different” girl of the group, and Claire admits to her father she invited Casey out of pity.
As Casey, Claire and Marcia sat in the car waiting for Claire’s father to hop in, Kevin (or Barry, or Dennis, or Patricia) entered the car, instead. James McAvoy’s menacing demeanor worked as a man with 23 personalities. The first personality on display? Dennis, a lunatic who pepper sprays each girl in the car, later carting them into his penitentiary-style abode.
What works particularly well with Split is its use of close-up shots that force the audience to study each facial movement McAvoy expresses. There’s almost a tale of its own told in the eyes of each personality.
I feel the zany, over-the-top nature by McAvoy worked … for the most part. There are moments where I simply didn’t buy his portrayal of a 9-year-old, for instance. However, you can see the free rein M. Night gave him in this role, and it’s refreshing to see a manic McAvoy compared to his calmer roles in the recent X-Men films.
The performance that surprisingly compelled me was Anya Taylor-Joy’s role as Casey, the estranged teenager who chooses to separate from the crowd. Taylor-Joy is becoming something of a gem in the horror/thriller world, so it was nice to see her solid performance in Split. The film utilized flashbacks that juxtapose with events happening in the present, which added a bit more dynamic to her character. Sure, the film forced the spotlight on her performance, but I didn’t mind. The supporting cast wasn’t interesting enough, anyways.
However, I feel Split lacks in technical areas. The score was ultimately forgettable. Most effective thrillers have a score that is subtle and sometimes absent in the face of tension, but West Dylan Thordson’s (Joy, Foxcatcher) score didn’t add much of anything. It was just … there. Also, the cinematography lacked spice for almost two hours. Sure, there are the neat extreme close-ups that were used as I alluded to earlier, but more often than not, the cinematography was vanilla.
Some may be disappointed with this straightforward approach by M. Night, but I appreciated not needing too much zaniness and lots of abstract elements to draw me into the film. It’s McAvoy playing a crazy man (or woman) with multiple personalities. It’s Taylor-Joy fleshing out a character that struggles with troubles of her own and feels calm in the face of terror. This made for a solid enough Shyamalan film, and stood on its own outside of the M. Night bias that surrounds most of his films.
I attended an early screening of Split, thanks to Sly Fox. The film runs for an hour and 57 minutes and is rated PG-13. It debuts in North America is Jan. 20, 2017.