“We are what we believe we are.”
Confession: I had more or less written off M. Night Shyamalan. We can argue about precisely where his career went off the rails, but suffice it to say that it’s been off the rails for quite a while. The talk of Shyamalan being the next Hitchcock (which, in fairness, was always a bit hyperbolic) stopped sometime around the release of Lady in the Water, and lifeless blockbusters like The Last Airbender and After Earth gave the impression that the director had simply run out of gas. However, Shyamalan’s expensive failures gave birth to something unexpected: a low-budget creative resurgence. First, he gave us the surprisingly decent The Visit (made for a mere $5 million), a better-than-average slice of found footage horror (not a high bar to clear, but still). He followed that with the psychological thriller Split (made for only $9 million), which is – against all odds – the most interesting, gripping thing he’s made since Unbreakable.
Split begins with the kidnapping of three teenage girls: Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen), Marcia (Jessica Sula, Skins) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch). Their abductor is a stern-looking, fastidious man named Dennis, who takes the girls to a secret hideout, locks them in a room and tells them that they are eventually going to be sacrificed to a creature known as “The Beast.” The girls soon learn that “Dennis” is only one persona of a man suffering from a particularly bizarre case of dissociative identity disorder. We’re subsequently introduced to Patricia (a prim-and-proper matriarch), Hedwig (a friendly nine-year-old boy), Barry (a free-spirited artist) and other personalities, some of whom seem less comfortable with the kidnapping situation than others. Claire and Marcia panic, but Casey – a social outcast with a troubled past – seems convinced that they might be able to find a way out of the situation if they can find a way to trick one of the more gullible personalities into helping them out.
There are two things about Split that really surprised me. The first is that the film is not merely a gimmicky thriller, but a surprisingly thoughtful, emotionally compelling examination of the long-term effects of abuse. As the film proceeds, we begin to see a series of common threads between Casey and her captor, and flashbacks fill us in on both what led the McAvoy character to this point and why Casey is so much better-equipped to deal with it. The film’s treatment of mental illness is questionable at best (in terms of its examination of psychology, there are moments when it feels like a modern Spellbound), but it has a real understanding of the strength abuse victims are forced to cultivate and the wounds they have been dealt.
The other thing that surprised me is that McAvoy’s performance – which looked like a cornball gimmick in the trailers – is actually pretty terrific. He commits to each and every new personality so completely that the character – against all odds – manages to feel real and persuasive. He doesn’t let any of his personalities turn into cartoon characters, somehow making all of these manifestations of a broken person feel complicated and convincing in their own right. Split is bonkers, but it would fall apart with anything less than a terrific central performance. McAvoy delivers.
Okay, there’s a third thing that surprised me. You know what it is… and if you don’t, I shouldn’t tell you.
While a few passages involving a kind-hearted therapist (Betty Buckley, The Happening) wander into bland exposition territory, Shyamalan’s direction is largely tight and focused. Anya Taylor-Joy (who made such a strong impression in The Witch) does exceptional work as the enigmatic heroine of the tale, and the film’s violent climax does a fine job of subverting genre expectations and going somewhere genuinely thoughtful: “Rejoice!”
Split (Blu-ray) offers a fine 1080p/2.40:1 transfer, boasting slick, polished digital cinematography. The film has a lot of darker scenes, and benefits from strong shadow delineation and a minimum of digital noise. Detail is terrific throughout. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is exceptional, too, blending the atmospheric West Dylan Thordson score nicely (though it must be noted that James Newton Howard is sorely missed) with the dialogue and minimal sound design. Supplements include three featurettes (“The Making of Split,” “The Many Faces of James McAvoy” and “The Filmmaker’s Eye: M. Night Shyamalan”), deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a DVD copy and a digital copy.
Split is the most interesting thing Shyamalan has made in a while. Here’s hoping it’s the start of a comeback.