After last year’s well-received, but probably still underrated, The Visit, M Night Shyamalan continues his low-budget comeback tour with Split, a tense escape room thriller and all-in showcase for James McAvoy.
In the opening sequence, three teenagers, Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor Joy, excellent here) Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) are kidnapped with great efficiency after a birthday party by a bespectacled Kevin (James McAvoy). The girls are locked inside what appears to double as a home and makeshift bunker-style prison, held captive by Kevin, who has dissociative identity disorder and 23 personalities with 24th on its way.
Of Kevin’s personalities, McAvoy mainly plays four of them: the good-natured Barry, the smooth and unnerving Patricia, the six-year-old Hedwig, and the methodical Dennis. With a lesser actor, this plainly would not have worked, but McAvoy pulls it off in one of the best performances of his career. There’s even a dance number with Kanye-loving Hedwig but the dance number is disappointingly not to Kanye. Thanks for nothing, Blumhouse.
The girls try with varying degrees of success to escape, and Casey, who has a clear emotional connection to Kevin, tries to manipulate his personalities to gain freedom. The tension builds as Kevin (through Patricia, Barry, Hedwig, and Dennis) allude to the pending arrival of “The Beast”, presumably another personality yet to introduce itself to the captives or Kevin’s psychologist (the amazing Betty Buckley).
This is a film very clearly interested in psychological trauma and abuse. In addition, death, loss, and agency – themes at the core of all Shyamalan films – are present and explored quite intriguingly here. Split is not perfect or Shyamalan’s best work, but it is well-shot, brilliantly acted and fun, which is not always the case with our dear M. Night.
Like most of Shyamalan’s work, audiences will be split on the film’s final act and it’s ending, which yes, is distinct from the final act. As audiences have learned, Shyamalan’s films are always compelling, at the very least conceptually, but don’t always work. Some are outright disasters and others are more modest failures, but with last year’s The Visit and now Split, M. Night fans have good reason to be excited again.