The key to M. Night Shyamalan’s recent success seems to be putting a severe limit on the amount of money he’s allowed to throw around.
After working with sizable budgets on big projects like The Last Airbender, After Earth, The Happening, Lady in the Water and The Village—all of which sucked major ass—Shyamalan almost made a good movie in 2015 with The Visit.
Now, gosh darn it, he’s finally made his first good movie since Signs (2002) with Split, a down-to-the-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, outcast high school student attending a birthday party for Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) only because she got a “mercy invite.” Casey’s stuck after the party, so Claire’s dad offers her and another friend, Marcia (Jessica Sula), a ride home. That ride never gets out of the parking lot because a strange, angry man (McAvoy) winds up in the driver’s seat and sprays the girls with a chemical. 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 form of split personality disorder. In addition to the man who kidnaps them, he’s a stately, mannered woman, a 9-year-old child and, well, a few others. One of those other personalities plays a big part in taking the film into other realms beyond psychological thriller.
McAvoy is bonechillingly good here, seamlessly segueing into each personality, and giving each one an original vocal and physical spin. In ways, this plays out like a modern day Psycho, with a few more personalities thrown in and minus the shower scene. While in the Hedwig persona, McAvoy has a memorable dance scene, a welcomed funny break in the movie.
McAvoy even saves what could have been a hokey finale moment by fully committing to some Shyamalan lines that represent the screenwriter at his most obvious. McAvoy 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.
The last act of the movie is truly scary, and Shyamalan takes things into strange monster movie territory. No more secrets getting given away in this review. Go see the movie, and have some fun with it. Well, fun might not be the right word. It’s pretty freaking bleak.
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 major 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—basically this film’s Dr. Loomis, although less crazed—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.
So, given the current trajectory, Shyamalan could be one or two films away from giving us another masterpiece along the lines of Signs. Split is one of his best, and proof that we weren’t all crazy back in the day when we figured he could do great things behind a camera.