Despite not being culturally relevant in a positive way since the mid-aughts, M. Night Shyamalan still remains one of the most recognizable filmmakers in the world. As such a comeback has been overdue for the man for quite some time. Some may say the “Shyamalan-aissance” began with The Visit (a box office success that has otherwise not taken any sort of hold in the cultural zeitgeist whatsoever), but Shyamalan’s latest effort, Split, is the first true signal of a comeback from the man who once brought us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Split is all of the better tendencies of Shyamalan (impeccable atmosphere building, an eerie use of tension, memorable sequences, and plot twists that leave everyone talking) wrapped into a mostly effective bundle.
Split follows a high schooler (Anya Taylor-Joy, who made an incredible debut in last year’s The Witch) as she is kidnapped alongside two classmates that she never got along with. As she wakes up in an isolated room, she tries to find out the mystery behind her captor (James McAvoy), a man suffering from some sort of multiple personality disorder. As the captor’s disorder seems to worsen, the girl most find out who this “beast” is that all of the captor’s personalities seem to fear.
Split starts off as a moody and suspenseful thriller that mostly survives on the talents of its cast. The film asks a lot of James McAvoy as he is tasked with playing multiple characters that vary wildly in range but must still feel of a piece. This is McAvoy’s best work as he revels in the opportunity that he is given here. Everything about his performance feels realistic despite being such a showy one. The only strain on this realism comes in the form of Hedwig, his childlike personality, which will have some audiences laughing during sequences that don’t really deserve them. Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy proves herself to be one of the best young talents working. She never feels overmatched despite having 90% of her screen time with James McAvoy. Her quietness is a perfect counterbalance to what McAvoy is doing.
As the story unfolds, however, the intensity of the atmosphere and the plot both increase exponentially. Shyamalan does a great job of handling this transition. There may be some faults in the plot and character motivation (one character’s personality being due to a past filled with sexual assault comes across as misguided), but Shyamalan never takes his finger off the fun button and that results in a film that would have been quite good without its ending.
That ending, though, where (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed we have been watching a sequel to Unbreakable is one of the best theater experiences I have ever been able to sit through. It comes so out of left field (although there are certainly crumbs left throughout the film that makes the ending hold up) and yet seems so pertinent to what is going on in the film industry right now. It’s a nice call back to a slow burn superhero film before superhero films took over the world.