Split

Looks like the Cerebro device finally fried Professor X’s brain. James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley and Haley Lu Richardson star in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

SplitCast of Characters:
Kevin Wendell Crumb – James McAvoy
Casey Cooke – Anya Taylor-Joy
Dr. Karen Fletcher – Betty Buckley
Claire Benoit – Haley Lu Richardson
Marcia – Jessica Sula
John Cooke – Brad William Henke

Director – M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay – M. Night Shyamalan
Producer – M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum & Marc Bienstock
Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language

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While out together, friends Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and their pity tag-along Casey Cooke’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) day takes a horrifying turn for the worse when they are suddenly kidnapped by a man named Dennis (James McAvoy). They later wake up locked in an underground cellar of his, and just when things couldn’t get any worse for them, their nightmare takes another unexpected turn. See, Dennis’s name is actually Kevin Wendell Crumb, who suffers from a severe case of DID (dissociative identity disorder). “Dennis” just so happens to be one of 23 other split personalities inhabiting Kevin’s mind.

Desperate for any means of escape available, the girls fight to survive, but when they learn from one of Kevin’s more milder, childlike personalities, “Hedwig”, of a fabled 24th personality known as “The Beast” and its intentions with the three, they come to the frightening realization that time may be running out for them.

M. Night Shyamalan was on top of the filmmaking world during the late ’90s and early ’00s with his first handful of films. There was a time when his films drew big crowds, earned mass box office dollars, critical praise and premature dubbings of the “next Steven Spielberg”. The latter, combined with the ego he gained from such headlines, may have contributed to his eventual fall from grace, ’cause following The Village, Shyamalan next four pictures would range from the over-ambitious misfire Lady in the Water and mediocre sci-fi dud After Earth to utter abominations like The Happening and The Last Airbender. It was a fall so bad that Shyamalan went from having films like Signs proudly display “From M. Night Shyamalan, director of The Sixth Sense!” to Columbia Pictures going out of their way to bury his name in all of their advertisements for After Earth. Hell, even the film Devil, which he only signed on to produce and not direct, still drew snickers from audiences at the sight of his name being promoted in the trailers.

Still, and I’ve said this before in other Shyamalan reviews I’ve done, the man wasn’t just a one-hit wonder that managed to get lucky with The Sixth Sense. He also gave us the vastly underrated Unbreakable, Signs and The Village. Even with the four misfires that followed, no matter how terrible they might be, he’s still batting .500, which is why I still held out hope that he could deliver another quality flick. And lo and behold, he did so in 2015 with The Visit, a film that, for sure, is imperfect but still an entertaining reminder of how good Shyamalan can be when he utilizes his talent correctly.

Of course, The Visit was just one film, so it’s not like one good film following four flops was reason to hail a comeback after it opened, but it was still a solid step in the right direction. Now we have his newest flick, Split, and now we can call it a comeback for him ’cause all that tense, suspenseful magic he was capable of conjuring up in his best features is wonderfully on display here.

Most of the credit behind Shyamalan’s comeback, aside from gaining a newfound sense of humility (four bombs in a row will do that to you), belongs to Blumhouse Productions head Jason Blum. Sure, Blum has put out his share of crap, but he’s also put out his share of gems, and regardless of the film’s quality, he’s a smart producer with a knack for turning cost-efficient films into box office successes. What he’s done for Shyamalan is get him to return to his wheelhouse and that’s films with smaller scales and more intimately focused scopes. A major part of the problem behind his four bombs was either the story’s ambition would run wildly out of control (Lady in the Water, The Happening) or he’d stumble way outside his element with big budget, summer blockbuster actioners (The Last Airbender, After Earth). Even with a film like Signs, though it was advertised as a summer blockbuster sci-fi event flick led by an A-list star, it still overall had a small, intimate scope that focused primarily on one family’s experience during an alien invasion. Shyamalan’s undoubtedly a gifted storyteller and with Blum behind him to set parameters for him it’s a formula that so far, between the two films they’ve collaborated on, has proven to be a success.

Right from the start, Shyamalan doesn’t waste any time and plunges us viewers into the thick of his story. That may seem like rushing the development, but periodically, throughout the film, he utilizes flashbacks for key characters that deepen the story as well as add layers to said characters. It’s a risky move not only ’cause of how overused the flashback device is, but more so ’cause of the increasingly disturbing areas he ventures into with it. Split explores territory that is some of the darkest Shyamalan’s written in his career, but he handles it just right, and the way one particular thread is resolved speaks volume with just one achingly tragic shot.

From a production standpoint, Split delivers the goods. Whether it’s the ominous score from West Dylan Thordson, the eerily creative set design or the brilliantly claustrophobic ways cinematographer Mike Gioulakis captures it all on camera, Shyamalan is doing something we haven’t seen him do in years and that’s dig deep within himself and channel his inner Alfred Hitchcock (though the Spielberg comparisons are evident in Signs, I’ve always felt Shyamalan’s style was more closely related to Hitchcock than Spielberg). Even with Shyamalan diving deep into the heart of the story right away, the tension isn’t rushed but rather ratcheted up in slow-burn fashion, gradually escalating all the way to a thrilling third-act that’s nothing short of heart-poundingly terrifying.

Granted, not every choice works out. At times, characters can’t help but fall into a horror film trapping that almost makes you wanna go all Christian Bale on them and shout, “What are you dooooing?!!” But far more often than not, Shyamalan’s back on his A-game, serving up not just the hair-raising thrills, but also an effective dose of humor that’s used at the right moments.

All that said, and Shyamalan, of course, deserves as much credit as he gets ’cause we’ve seen him fumble with talented casts before, the real force of this movie is James McAvoy. He gets an incredibly meaty role and just goes to town with it, ably switching from sweet and mild-mannered to upbeat and flamboyant to utterly chilling on a dime. Not only does the script call on him to create distinct personalities for each one he has to play onscreen, there are a few times where he also has to switch back and forth between them during the same scene, and it’s a tour de force result from him. If this isn’t the best performance he’s given to date, it’s certainly the ballsiest.

The supporting cast is uniformly good, but two standouts are Anya Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley, the latter of whom I last saw fretting that Mark Wahlberg was going to “murder her in her sleep” in The Happening. Buckley does fine work as Kevin’s therapist, who genuinely sympathizes with his case, but also strongly believes that there could be more to his disorder than just a collection of “personalities”. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to blaze a trail of strong performances in her young but extremely promising career following The Witch and Morgan (I wasn’t exactly the biggest fan of Morgan, but despite the issues it had, she was not one of them). Casey may be vulnerable, but she isn’t weak, and Taylor-Joy does a terrific job of imbuing her character with a strong sense of both vulnerability and resourcefulness. As the film gradually starts to peel back layer to her own story, you’ll begin to see why she’s able to be such an asset to her two friends.

As for the twist, ’cause this is a Shyamalan film and everyone expects that, there’s really not one per se. The film follows a narrative trajectory that gradually leads to the point it repeatedly references, so those expecting something out of left field like The Sixth Sense will be disappointed (or elated, depending on whether you love or hate the guy). Still, the less you know, the better ’cause it does lead to a point I didn’t see coming (and in hindsight, had I have been paying close attention to one particular detail near the end, I might’ve been able to pick it up). This much I will say, the third-act will undoubtedly have viewers either going totally along for the ride or abandoning ship; however, once that final scene arrives, everything before it makes perfect sense, and it is quite a beauty of an ending.

Seriously, welcome back, Sham-Hammer.

Tense, gripping and darkly humorous when it needs to be, Split benefits tremendously from a perfectly chilling atmosphere and strong performances led by a terrific James McAvoy in a career turn, all of which has M. Night Shyamalan returning to top form. Whether Shyamalan can carry this good momentum over to a third film and more, of course, remains to be seen. But for now, following The Visit and Split, it’s great to see the prodigal filmmaker back to his usual suspenseful tricks.

I give Split an A- (★★★½).

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