Two sides of Shyamalan

A good psychological thriller from the oft-maligned horror director

Starring James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated PG-13.
Rated 4.0

After working with sizable budgets on big projects like The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening and Lady in the Water—all of which majorly sucked—M. Night Shyamalan has finally made his first good movie since Signs (2002). Split is a down-to-basics, creepy thriller propelled by excellent performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. The film reminds us that Shyamalan can be quite the capable director (and writer) when he isn’t getting too carried away.

Taylor-Joy, so good in last year’s horror masterpiece The Witch, plays Casey, an introverted high school outcast attending a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) thanks to a “mercy invite.” Casey’s stuck after the party, so Claire’s dad offers her and another friend, Marcia (Jessica Sula), a ride home. Claire’s dad never gets his car out of the parking lot because a strange, angry man (McAvoy) takes the driver’s seat and knocks the three girls out. They wake up together in a prison cell.

It’s no big reveal to let you know that McAvoy’s character is suffering from a multiple personality disorder. In addition to the man who kidnaps them, he’s a stately, mannered woman; a 9-year-old child; and, well, a bunch of others.

McAvoy is bone-chillingly good here, seamlessly segueing into each personality, and giving each an original vocal and physical spin. While in the Hedwig persona, for example, McAvoy has a memorable dance scene, a welcomed funny break in the movie. And one of the personalities plays a big part in taking the film into realms beyond psychological thriller.

McAvoy even saves what could have been a hokey final moment by fully committing to some Shyamalan lines that represent the screenwriter at his most obvious. He delivers his final major monologue with such ferocious and fully invested energy we just buy into it.

In short, McAvoy’s work here should go into the annals of great psycho performances alongside Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Kathy Bates in Misery.

Quickly becoming a new kind of “scream queen,” Taylor-Joy has now anchored two masterful horror films within a year of each other. She has an amazing array of expressions, and Shyamalan takes advantage of this. Rather than shrieking her face off as the terrorized often do in horror movies, Taylor-Joy is a restrained, conflicted kind of horrified. What she lacks in volume she makes up in intensity.

Following up her terrific performance in The Edge of Seventeen, a solid Richardson takes the normally vain “popular” character in horror films, and gives her a lot of depth and smarts. Betty Buckley does equally well as a therapist trying to help the McAvoy characters handle their afflictions. Shyamalan himself shows up for a fun cameo—and stick around for the credits, which include a pretty powerful Easter egg.

Split is one of Shyamalan’s best, and proof that we weren’t all crazy back when The Sixth Sense teased at his promise of being able to do great things behind a camera.