M. Night Shyamalan is a difficult director to pin down. Neither the "next Spielberg" he was once touted as nor the entirely talentless hack he has often been painted as, he's a director whose wildly inconsistent filmography means that he's pretty much the definition of a "hit-and-miss" filmmaker. Fortunately, his latest movie Split is more hit than miss, a small scale horror/thriller that's fairly entertaining throughout, showing us a Shyamalan who is willing to embrace his genre roots in a way that plays to his strengths as both a writer and as a director - and something that I'd like to see more of in the future.
Split follows three teenage girls - Claire, Marcia and misfit Casey - as they are kidnapped and held prisoner by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man who suffers from severe Dissociative Identity Disorder due to childhood abuse. As the girls attempt to escape they meet a number of Kevin's personalities, including the obsessive compulsive Dennis and 9-year old Hedwig, and slowly learn that the reason they were taken was to witness the emergence of "The Beast" - the incredibly violent 24th personality in Kevin's body who aims to purge the world of the impure, starting with them.
To say that Split is exploitative would be an understatement - it's a film that uses child abuse and a little understood mental health condition as major parts of its story, and there is no doubt in my mind that its treatment of each is seven shades of problematic to say the least. I imagine we're going to see a fair few think pieces about this film in the next couple of weeks, and that's not necessarily a bad thing - there does need to be a serious discussion about the way that Split represents mental illnesses, especially in the wake of Shyamalan's previous film, The Visit.
That being said, Split is a well-made movie in spite of these aspects of itself - maybe not as frightening as it could have been, but engaging enough in other areas to make up for that somewhat frustrating lack of scary moments. Anya Taylor-Joy - last seen in Robert Eggers' truly astounding The Witch - is excellent as outcast Casey, our main character, but naturally it is James McAvoy as Kevin and his various personalities who is the films MVP. He's giving one of the greatest "all-in" performances I've ever seen, hamming it up with the best of them as Hedwig and Patricia before dialing everything way back to play Dennis - it's a fascinating, endlessly entertaining performance, and McAvoy is clearly having the time of his life giving it. Regardless of what people think of this movie overall, I doubt you'll find anyone who doesn't think that McAvoy's performance alone was worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, Split falls apart at least somewhat as it reaches its end, doing away with much of what made the rest of the film so interesting in the first place. McAvoy spends much of the last act playing "The Beast", the least interesting of Kevin's personalities, and the films finale is frustratingly traditional in comparison to what precedes it. And that's ultimately representative of the central battle being waged at the heart of Split - the films originality and much of why it works comes from its characters, but when all is said and done, it's a plot and story you've seen before, and Split fails to transcend that.
Throw in a running time that's excessive even at just two hours and a last minute reveal that feels perfunctory at best and Split becomes something of a mixed bag - an entertaining movie throughout, sure, but one with a few annoyances that stop it from leaving the kind of impact it could and should have left. But it's certainly still a vast improvement over what one might have expected from an M. Night Shyamalan film even just a few years ago, a well-made movie with a couple of great performance front and centre - and really, that's all Split ever needed to be.