Universal(NEW YORK) — M. Night Shyamalan is back! At one time the most promising filmmaker in the world, Mr. Shyamalan seemed to peak with the film that got him noticed, 1999’s The Sixth Sense — one of my favorites and a technical masterpiece, from top to bottom. Then came the admirable Unbreakable, the respectable Signs and, finally, what would be his last compelling and memorable film for 13 years, The Village.
As far as I’m concerned, The Sixth Sense alone gave Shyamalan a free pass to try anything he wanted for the rest of his days. But a decade-plus of sanctimonious narratives (The Happening), well-meaning but overzealous fairytales (The Lady in the Water), uninspired adaptations (The Last Airbender) and stunt-casting sci-fi (After Earth) wore thin on the patience of even this Shyamalan fan and apologist.
Then two years ago, M. Night gave us the horror film The Visit. Shot on a small budget, it included no major stars, simple set pieces and the best special effect of all: a great story.
With Split, Shyamalan is once again keeping it relatively low-budget. Except this time, he’s got James McAvoy and Betty Buckley, as well as three young actresses — perhaps most notably Anya Taylor-Joy — who are all going to have great careers.
Split is an abduction tale, but the abductor in this case, Kevin (McAvoy), has a severe case of multiple personality disorder, with 23 different personalities inhabiting his body. Buckley plays Dr. Fletcher, his psychiatrist, who’s out to prove to the psychiatric community that those personalities are so powerful and real, not only do Kevin’s voice, accent and handwriting change for each, but so does his metabolism and physiology. Fletcher believes studying Kevin’s condition will lead to unlocking the true power and potential of the brain.
Kevin’s personalities also have their own agenda. They work in concert to abduct high school students Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Taylor-Joy) from a mall parking lot. Claire and Marcia are besties, part of the popular crowd, while Casey is an outcast who, we quickly learn, spends most of her time in detention and has a habit of running away from home.
The three girls wake up in a subterranean room with three cots and a surprisingly pleasant-looking bathroom. They’re greeted by Dennis, Kevin’s anal-retentive and tough personality who is, sort of, the driving force behind the abduction. Not long after that, the girls are visited by Patricia — Kevin in a dress and with a British accent — and then by Hedwig, Kevin’s 9-year-old precocious personality.
The girls have very different opinions on how they should handle the situation. Claire thinks her six months of martial arts training will help save the day, while Casey, who keeps having emotional flashbacks to her childhood, when her father taught her about hunting, thinks a more patient approach is the key to escape.
In the meantime, Kevin’s personality Barry, a budding fashion designer, keeps scheduling impromptu appointments with Dr. Fletcher, showing up at her office. Dr. Fletcher suspects something’s wrong with Kevin and his multiple personalities, but can’t get Barry to spill the beans.
This is simply M. Night’s most evocative work since The Sixth Sense. His use of close-ups is intimate and, at times, claustrophobic — particularly when we’re face-to-face with McAvoy and his many personalities, an acting challenge McAvoy absolutely nails. He’s so good, had this film been Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense, it would’ve been released in time for awards season consideration. Equally up to task is 20-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, who is simply the truth.
Welcome back M. Night Shyamalan. With Split, you’re on top of your game, and I cant wait to see what you do next.
Four out of five stars.
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