After fifteen years, M. Night Shyamalan (“The Sixth Sense”) has returned to top form. His newest film, “Split,” is an exercise in the construction of atmosphere with which the director, who has spent much of the last decade and a half in the cinematic doghouse, once made his name. It is both a reminder of what Shyamalan can do at the height of his abilities and a promise of a bold new chapter in his career where he has overcome his own ego to return to interesting storytelling.
James McAvoy (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) leads the small cast, which includes Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Witch”) and Haley Lu Richardson (“The Edge of Seventeen”), and to call McAvoy’s performance commanding is a massive understatement. As Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder, McAvoy gives an incredibly varied performance. There is an ensemble of separately interesting characters inside one body, and McAvoy makes them all memorable. It’s also worth noting that, for those worried about how “Split” may affect public perception of those living with D.I.D., Shyamalan makes it clear by the film’s end that Kevin has something wholly different. Discerning viewers should have no problem separating the fiction onscreen from the reality of the disorder.
As director, Shyamalan shows an impressive command of the camera, choosing to let his shots linger, sometimes longer than may feel necessary, in order to build the claustrophobic atmosphere of Kevin’s lair. Even during the later scenes of the movie when it ventures from thriller to full-on horror, he chooses to let the camera roll rather than succumbing to the rapid cutting the dominates much of the horror landscape, resulting in a much more terrifying and rewarding climax. In particular, his Hitchcockian use of shots, which put the viewer in the point-of-view of his characters, provides numerous scares on its own.
The most interesting scenes “Split” has to offer, however, are the meetings between Kevin and his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, “The Happening”). Not only do these scenes provide a look into Kevin’s psyche and streamline some necessary exposition, they also build something approaching a mythology. Shyamalan gives his audience glimpses into his lead’s past and present, which sets the stage for the reveals towards the end of the movie.
If “Split” has one flaw, it’s that some of the characters, particularly the young women Kevin kidnaps, don’t get the development that would allow us to further empathize with them. Taylor-Joy’s Casey does all right for herself, though one of her big character moments feels a tad forced. Though the focus of the film is not on the characters portrayed by Jessica Sula (“Skins”) and the aforementioned Richardson, the proceedings would have gained further added weight had the two felt more fully formed.
Shyamalan takes the unique premise of “Split” to its full potential, using the thriller tale to tell a compelling story of abuse and its affects. It’s proficiency in storytelling that has been sorely lacking from his recent efforts and recalls his 2000 superhero thriller “Unbreakable” in many ways. As the credits roll and the obligatory last twist unravels spectacularly, there is a distinct feeling that his career has at last been reinvigorated.