M. Night Shyamalan’s movies have received pretty poor reviews since 2004’s The Village, which in my opinion is a great movie that unfortunately suffered from misleading marketing. 2015’s The Visit, however, was a promising return to form, which wasn’t perfect but got a lot of things right. And now his newest movie, Split, has hit theatres with a lot of buzz surrounding it. The question is: does it live up to the hype?
The short answer is yes. It’s pretty damn good: go see it. Review over. But for the sake of a proper review, it was everything I expected from a good Shyamalan flick. It was tense, thrilling, and unpredictable. The premise is this: a man with 23 personalities kidnaps three girls, and they must try to escape. A pretty cool premise, but not a winner in itself. It all lies in the execution.
Of the 23 personalities, I think around five are shown on screen, all acted by James McAvoy, who nails each one. They are well written, too, varied enough to be exciting on screen, but connected in a way that doesn’t make them feel just like unrelated characters. In fact, I think some of the most interesting scenes where between Kevin (or his various personalities) and his therapist. His character, and the various personalities are individually and collectively fleshed out to create a real sense of realism. This was really important, as the movie was kind of two movies in one: a chilling thriller about the protagonist trying to escape from a psychopath, and a psychological exploration of Kevin: a character study.
The other main characters were acted, and written exceptionally. The therapist was great, as was Casey, who was really well fleshed out for the genre, and I guess second to Kevin’s character study, it was largely an exploration of Casey’s own trauma. Her backstory was also subtly explored, which was great. It left a little ambiguity and didn’t treat the audience like idiots. And I must give props to Shyamalan’s portrayal of trauma and the way it manifests itself in different people. I mean, clearly it’s taken to the absolute extreme with Kevin, but he still feels human, and that’s what makes this movie shine, I think. Kevin is as much a victim as tormenter in the movie, and the different personalities have different awarenesses of this. For instance, when we finally see Kevin’s core personality, we see that he has no desire to harm others, and is mortified at the idea; others are indifferent, but a couple, and ultimately the 24th personality do have strong inclinations to inflict suffering on others. The movie is clearly literal, but I suppose one could interpret these personalities as metaphorical for the different thoughts one feels in response to trauma.
Speaking of the 24th personality, I…. have mixed feelings. It certainly aided the tension and thrill of the movie, and from a psychological perspective represents the most carnal manifestations of suffering trauma: pure hatred and rage and desire to inflict pain on others. And I really liked the scene where even this personality, the most tenacious and seemingly unbeatable personality, showed respect and connection to someone else who has suffered like them. Having said all this, I wasn’t too hot on the supernatural element. I feel like it clashed a little with the previous realism of the psychological aspects and characterisation, but it did serve the tension and thrill of the movie. I’ll emphasise that this is probably a personal thing, as I much prefer realism to supernatural elements, but it did work for the movie, and served as a great twist.
Overall, the movie was great. It’s near-2 hours run time goes by in a flash, and it’s paced really well throughout, with some great suspense, characterisation, and development. I don’t think it’ll be one of the best movies of the year - it’s not quite a masterpiece - but it’s certainly the movie all your friends will be talking about for the next few weeks. As for the final scene, I had to google this because I hadn’t seen Unbreakable, so the connections went over my head, but after a little research, I discovered that Split is set in the same universe, with several scenes from the movie being in the original draft for Unbreakable. Kudos to them for keeping this quiet, too. It seems Shyamalan also has plans to make a sequel combining both movies, so I’ll need to go and watch it. Let's hope the days of mediocre moviemaking is behind him.