Director M. Night Shyamalan finds his groove once again in this psychological horror starring James McAvoy as a kidnapper with a split personality…
Just to make clear before we start, full spoilers to be found beyond this point. You. Have. Been. Warned.
Once upon a time, M Night Shyamalan was one of Hollywood’s must-watch directors. After blowing everyone away with 2000’s The Sixth Sense, he gradually deteriorated into making critically reviled films like Avatar: The Last Airbender and After Earth. At last, he has found his footing again with psychological horror Split. It’s not perfect, but it sees the writer/director on much better form than he has been in about fifteen years.
Split sees James McAvoy as Kevin – a man suffering from Disassociative Identity Disorder with an incredible 23 separate personalities – who kidnaps three teenage girls. His various personalities, collectively known as The Horde, believe that a 24th personality is coming – The Beast – and he will need fresh meat to greet him when he arrives…
As this sounds, the film plays along the usual horror lines for the most part, complete with the hoary old trope of increasingly scantily-clad teen girls being terrorized by a predatory man. That said, anyone looking for a gory slasher will be disappointed as it is much more interested in creating and preserving tension. Split largely covers pretty familiar ground, then, but it does break out into the realms of science fiction with its completely hokum talk of mentally unwell people developing preternatural powers.
The success of the film is largely due to McAvoy’s committed, energetic performance as the fractured Kevin, who’s like a cross between Norman Bates, the Hulk and McAvoy’s own Professor X .The actor excels at giving the differing personalities their own voice and physicality – there’s stern neat-freak Dennis, prim yet sinister Patricia, Kanye West-loving boy Hedwig and others – and is never less than unnerving.
Ably supporting him is Anya Taylor-Joy as the anti-social and introverted Casey. After her terrific breakout performance in eerie horror The Witch, Taylor-Joy has proven herself to be one of the foremost “final girls” around at the moment, as she is adept at playing multi-faceted young women who don’t just scream and run. Unlike the other two girls, Casey’s experience with abuse means she is more equipped to deal with the unhinged Kevin. Some of the most gripping scenes in the movie come when Casey is trying to coax Hedwig into helping her escape.
The highlight of Shyamalan’s effective, if occasionally rote, script comes in a very clever inversion of the usual horror trope. Kevin’s personalities constantly talk throughout the film about murdering the girls because they are “impure.” Unlike the countless horror films where teens have been killed for having sex, however, The Horde classify “impure” people as those who have not suffered some transformative horror, as they believe those who have survived tragedy are “more” than normal people. As much as the film demonizes mental illness, this philosophy does go some way to evening the balance.
But I can’t go any further without mentioning that twist – in a shocking reveal of a larger plan at work, Bruce Willis shows up in the movie’s final moment, reprising his role as superhero David Dunn from Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2002). It’s a beautifully done twist – James Newton Howard’s theme from the movie begins to build in the previous scene and is in full swell when Willis appears. The mention of Samuel L Jackson’s villain name “Mr Glass” also mirrors the last words of Unbreakable.
As a big fan of the movie, the prospect of an Unbreakable 2 where Dunn fights The Horde is irresistible. Let’s hope Shyamalan gets the movie off the ground soon. If you are unfamiliar with the director’s work, you’ll probably be left scratching your head at this scene but if you are a Shyamalan fan of old, this will have you whooping with joy.
In truth, it’s such an ingenious twist that it eclipses the rest of the movie. For the most part, though, Split is a solid horror movie sporting a couple of great performances. The fact that it has a split personality all of its own – it’s part standalone thriller and partly a tease of a bigger franchise – is rather fitting.
The film itself is probably a 3.5, but for that twist I’ll have to give it…