Heed this warning – I am going to attempt to navigate around spoilers as best I can, but there will inevitably be some things that sneak through; the nature of the film makes it hard to review without at least getting into a little of what many would consider the twist. Read on at your own risk.
M. Night Shyamalan has been making a return of late; after his disastrous releases of The Last Airbender and After Earth – the film versions of punching bags – he went on a hiatus for nearly five years before returning with both Wayward Pines and his theatrical The Visit. Wayward Pines found a niche and made it work, especially thanks to Blake Crouch’s original concept; The Visit was, despite this reviewer’s mixed feelings, well-received by most viewers as well, featuring a twist that wasn’t so much shocking as it was strangely familiar. With Split, Shyamalan returns to thriller filmmaking with a fairly straightforward plot about captive teenage women and their split-personality captor, adding a dash of flavor with a late twist that isn’t shocking but doesn’t lose its power either.
Split follows Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a rather joyless teenage girl who is kidnapped with her classmates Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) by a mysterious man (James McAvoy) who suffers from the controversial diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. Casey, Marcia, and Claire quickly find out that Barry has more than one personality, alternating between a child to a woman to a rather normal fashion designer at the drop of a hat.
As a setup, Shyamalan’s premise is rather simple – three girls, a mentally ill man, and their attempts to escape all play into Split, and for a majority of the first and second acts, Shyamalan doesn’t attempt much more than that. The direction is rather languid, with Shyamalan choosing to focus more on McAvoy’s constant character changes and Taylor-Joy’s elevated survival skills; it’s a good pairing, as both actors shine in their roles, but some viewers will find Split to be a lengthy exercise in patience, at least in its first hour. Still, McAvoy’s dedication to each aspect of his character (I’ll refer to him as character, but his name’s Dennis throughout much of the film) is exciting, and he is able to hold together Shyamalan’s more meandering moments. Accents, eccentricities, and gesturing all factor into McAvoy’s roles, and although our first meetings with many of Dennis’ 23 identities occur in isolation, Split manages to combine the personalities together later in the film to show McAvoy’s ability to switch on the fly between them.
Likewise, Taylor-Joy stands out here after two excellent performances in The Witch and Morgan, again adopting a doe-eyed demeanor while remaining a formidable opponent. Among the many scenes where Casey attempts to trick one of Dennis’ personalities into letting her go, Shymalan inserts flashback sequences to show Casey’s growth from child to capable woman.
While these scenes of the past at first seem to dispel some of the tension, their intention becomes clear. Split‘s themes deal in pain and trauma, and Shymalan’s characters find themselves ostracized from other people because of that suffering. The film’s conclusion doesn’t elevate those who have been traumatized over others; it simply identifies them as different, changed; they can’t ever be like people who have yet to experience anything painful again. Dennis’ different identities form to protect his main identity from that pain, a layering keeping the main identity safe even when it means losing humanity; unlike Dennis, though, Casey doesn’t necessarily need that protection, even though Shyamalan could have easily molded Casey into another example of DID.
Speaking about the twist itself, viewers expecting a mind-boggling reveal will be sorely disappointed, and in fact promoting the film’s final act as a twist is in itself a disservice. While Shyamalan’s plot certainly does contain a surprise, it doesn’t feel like it’s meant to completely take the viewer off-guard. Instead, it’s more of an answer to a question the viewer has throughout the film – whether we should take what Dennis’ identities say, and Shyamalan’s perspective, at face value or as something more psychologically fractured. Some will inevitably be disappointed with the film’s turn; and viewers themselves will have to decide whether it was worth watching 90 minutes of captive women and McAvoy’s excellent acting chops.
Overall, though, Split is an enjoyable experience that has some interesting things to say about trauma and psychology, along with a reference to a previous Shyamalan film. Perhaps the ideas aren’t strong enough to warrant a nearly two-hour running time, and some will be disappointed with the weaker elements of the film’s reveal; but McAvoy’s identities and a strong performance from Taylor-Joy help make Split an enjoyable viewing experience that feels more in tune with Shyamalan’s past breakthroughs, even if audiences have divisive reactions to the conclusion.