Movie Review: Split.
M. Night Shyamalan’s new horror film is aces, but the methodical pacing may frustrate some.
Split is the type of horror movie that typifies the “slow burn.” It adds tension relentlessly, and focuses on psychological horror instead of jump scares or a high body count. If you’ve seen a film by Shyamalan before, you probably know his methods. He litters his story touchstones whose significance is only revealed at the last moment. Many deride his twist ending heavy stories, but when he is on his game, those twists are more like a magician’s big reveal than a corny punchline.
With Split, M. Night Shyamalan is on his game. Our first film from our most anticipated list is a solid hit.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an outcast teen with a troubled history. She is invited to a birthday party by two popular girls, Claire and Marcia, as a begrudging good deed. After the party, the three girls are abducted from the parking lot by a man named Kevin (James McAvoy.) Kept in a secret dungeon, the girls learn that Kevin has a sinister plan for them, and that Kevin is host to a score of separate personalities who don’t all agree with each other. Casey realizes that the only hope for escape is to play these personas off against each other, alienating some and befriending others. Time is running out since a mysterious final personality, The Beast, is soon to assume control of Kevin, and his intentions are murderous.
Now Show Me Crazy.
The linchpin of the story is the game of cat and mouse played between Casey and Kevin’s personas. It utterly relies on James McAvoy’s abilities to invest his performances with enough character to make each distinct, but not to overdo it and make them feel like stereotypes. McAvoy, while not flawless, does a magnificent job. The three main antagonistic characters feel very distinct and recognizable. They each have their own quirks and motivations, but don’t come off as contrivances. We only meet a few of the neutral personas, but they are mostly well realized (except one bookish professor character who is rather flimsy, though rarely glimpsed.) His final persona is one of the best psychopaths since Silence of the Lambs. McAvoy is literally scary good in these roles.
Anya Talyor-Joy’s character, Casey, starts off as a bit of an enigma. It’s only as the film reveals more about her through flashbacks that we start to see how events have shaped her reaction to this horrible situation. By the end of the film, she is fully fleshed out and commands your sympathy, despite making a few standard horror movie blunders.
M. Night tends to show his inspirations rather nakedly. Here, you get the feeling that he is taking cues from other psychological thrillers such as the Hannibal Lecter series of films, and from Hitchcock. Kevin feels at times like an amalgam of Buffalo Bill and The Red Dragon, and the setting is very reminiscent of iconic sets in those films. Hitchcock’s many thrillers about double identities and secret lives also inform the mood of the film, several shots involving stairs feel like homages to his visual style, and a very protracted strangling/crushing scene is reminiscent of scenes from Dial M for Murder.
What sets Shymalan’s sampling apart is how organically these elements are used to situate this film in a specific genre. We are once again getting touchstones to clue us in on how the film is going to play out. It seems that M. Night loves to give away glimpses of his cards. This tactic allows him to create tension with just a glance, priming your responses. He can then either reward you with the expected payoff or keep you dangling by refusing it. While I do think there a just a few too many times where he snatches away the suspected payoff in favor of further stoking tension, it’s not egregious and mostly a stylistic preference on my part.
Let’s Twist Again?
Split builds tension for so long, you might expect Shyamalan to cash in with one of his trademark twists. While there is a rather roguish twist at the end, it’s nowhere near the climax of the film, and feels more like a puckish nod to his detractors. Instead, the film comes to a satisfying climax on its own merits. While it does cash in several of it set-up moments, it is nowhere as slavish about them as Signs was. There is no giant reveal like in The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable that restructures the whole narrative. There is a touch of modern fairy tale telling, like Lady in the Water or The Village, but it is subdued and feels like a natural part of the world we are experiencing.
While I do wish the plot was punctuated with a few more minor spikes of energy, the final confrontation between Kevin and Casey is really fantastic. Both characters are at the height of their identity and you really feel like there is nowhere else the film can go but into a confrontation. It was really well done, and did manage to pay out all of the build-up that proceeded it.
The More the Merrier.
Split is an excellent psychological horror that builds upon the legacy of other fantastic psychological horror films. The performances of its stars are engaging and memorable. At the end of the day, it is a solidly constructed film from a more mature film maker. It has many elements that will identify it as a Shyamalan film, but it integrates them skillfully into the narrative. It may not be a genre shattering movie, but it is a very good one, one of the best horror/thrillers I’ve seen in a long time.