You are different from the rest. Your heart is pure. Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved! Rejoice!
There’s a lot to like about Shyamalan’s newest film; I was pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of positive things about The Visit, his previous film. I was never a Shyamalan basher; his fall from grace was always a shame as far as I was concerned, not an opportunity for schadenfreude. Suffice it to say that he might not ever ascend to the heights he once saw, but in Split, he’s crafted a really solid, intriguing thriller. It’s stripped down to a very simple story of a man with several personalities kidnapping three young women for reasons unspecified. It’s essentially a two-location movie: the underground lair where he holds the women hostage and the office of his therapist, who is slowly figuring out that something bad is about to go down. The set design is good and the underground lair feels real and claustrophobic. Betty Buckley is a lot of fun as the troubled psychiatrist. And it’s a lot of fun to see Anya Taylor-Joy again; after her tour de force performance in The Witch and her soon to be released thriller Thoroughbred (and Morgan, but let’s forget Morgan), she seems to be carving out a space as something of a genre queen. She’s really good here. But, look, this movie belongs to James McAvoy as the main character(s?) and he gives a real masterclass. He’s able to juggle all the different personalities of his character really well, making differences in everything from vocal tone to body language. His work as the terrifying Dennis is particularly great and lest you think he’s stunt-acting as an exercise, he gives us the two most effective emotional moments of the film. It’s the ending of the film that kind of edges the movie over into horror; it’s resolutely dark, a lot darker than I expected it to be, and the way it refuses to really give much of a happy or redemptive ending to even the most sympathetic characters is admirable and genuinely unsettling. But I think I’ll go full spoilers now. If you are going to watch this movie, you should definitely do it unspoiled, so if you're going to watch it, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.
I found it genuinely unsettling and disturbing that the villains in Kevin’s head won; the moment when Kevin finally returns to lucidity for a brief moment and begs to be killed was the most heartbreaking moment in the film and the idea that Kevin and the rest of his more positive personalities have been pushed back down into captivity to the unholy trinity was really upsetting to me. With the reveal that this movie is a sequel to Unbreakable, I thought it gave things a nice turn of sorts. If Unbreakable was a super-hero origin story, then it turns out Split is the origin story of a super-villain. It’s an interesting way to look at the film, but I don’t know that it makes it better, only different. I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about that tie-in. It wasn’t a jaw-dropping awesome moment for me and I kind of hope we don’t get a third film in the trilogy; part of what was so great about Unbreakable was the open-ended nature of the story – one could make the same case for Split. I don’t really want to see everyone come back so that Casey can finally overcome her demons (again, I loved the darkness of her NOT coming to terms with her past in the film and the final shot of her was a real killer) and Kevin and David get to face off. I like that this one didn’t give us all of that and that’s what makes it an invigorating little thriller.
OKAY, SPOILERS OVER. Is the movie perfect? No. The direction is a little sloppy and so is the script. I’d definitely say the film is elevated more than just a bit by the performances and there are a few false notes even there. There’s one character that McAvoy has to briefly play that I thought he was not good at. But it’s a very entertaining, mostly well-executed, brilliantly acted thriller. I hope Shyamalan doesn’t stop at this level; I hope he keeps getting better. But it’s just good to see him back at this level for now. It’s not a great film, it’s a good one with a couple of great performances. As thrillers these days go, I’ll take it. 3 stars.
tl;dr – bleak thriller’s script is a bit weak, but great performances elevate this one a lot; not a great movie, but a good old-fashioned genre picture, surprisingly dark & consistently entertaining. 3 stars.