Running time 1hr 57mins
HAVE any fallen like M Night Shyamalan? After carving out a niche for himself with such titles as 1999’s (superb) The Sixth Sense and 2000’s (intriguing) Unbreakable, he’s entered the Hollywood canon as something of a bad industry punchline, responsible for a range of duds (Lady In The Water, The Happening), mediocrities (Signs, The Village) and verylittle in-between. Having returned of late, however, to his no-frills horror-thriller roots, his output has exhibited surprising fortitude and, yes, potential – last year’s The Visit was the return to form we’d all but ruled out in the wake of such lows as After Earth, a small, funny and reliably creepy picture that didn’t pretend to be anything other than popcorn entertainment.
With Split, Shyamalan delivers a similarly robust, back-to-basics production, as unapologetically barmy as it is classically suspenseful and, by turns, viscerally frightening. The action pits an established national favourite against one of these Isles’ most promising new faces, as James McAvoy’s kidnapper goes head-to-head with his troubled teenage hostage (Anya Taylor-Joy). The former has dissociative identity disorder, with a ‘Horde’ of sympathetic and guileless personalities on top of the malicious ones (if you’ve ever wanted to see the beady-eyed Scotsman playing a literal child, watch this); it falls upon our heroine to find her way around him before his 27th persona, the most violent of the lot, ‘wakes up’.
Like all the director’s films, Split is very much a one-trick pony, buoyed by the boundless commitment of its cast. There is no faulting McAvoy here, who’s clearly having a whale of a time. It won’t win any Oscars, sure, but his performance (performances?) is enthrallingly nasty – the rage and the mania positively ooze from the screen whenever he’s around, and we, like his captives, are never safe. It’s a fiendish, frantic pressure-cooker of a performance that goes a long way in turfing over the
pervading sense of gimmickyness. Taylor-Joy, for her part, demonstrates the adolescent grit and plausibility that rendered her the breakout star of 2016’s The Witch (already one of this critic’s favourite horror movies). Their mind-games, in the Foster-Hopkins vein, are real nail-biters – we have no idea what these damaged souls are thinking, and the film, despite its humility, leaves more than enough stones unturned.
Shyamalan is, of course, the ‘master’ of the movie twist, and Split’s is, unfortunately, rather jarring, taking the action in a clunky bio-horror direction where cleaner, moreinteresting roads might otherwise have been travelled. Sure, you won’t necessarily have seen it coming, but the big reveal certainly won’t have any audiences kicking themselves, and it betrays Shyamalan’s worrying penchant
for outright science abuse (inherited, of course, from Unbreakable, to which Split is a ‘thematic sequel’). Equally unbefitting to the film isan extensive subplot featuring a psychologist (Betty Buckley) – though well-acted, the piece feels like a distraction from the central escape thriller, largely failing to
contextualise McAvoy’s character in an interesting way. Minus this section, the film could have excelled as a claustrophobic survival piece; what we get instead is lots of filler, and the kidnapper’s rambling, biblical platitudes over tea and chocolates add relatively little to Split that could not have been conveyed elsewhere.
Still, this is all looking very hopeful. Though Shyamalan fails to take the core concept to its most exciting possible conclusions, Split is a taut, edgy work; particularly given the turkeys the filmmaker has otherwise doled out by the bucketful, we can only hope for the best from hereon in.