Shyamalan’s “Split” revives thriller themes

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Rob Carraher

The career of M. Night Shyamalan started with so much promise. “The Sixth Sense” redefined what audiences expected for thrillers. “Unbreakable” and “Signs” managed to keep the hype for Shyamalan’s work high. But then it started avalanching from there. What seemed like a career destined for greatness was disappearing little by little. What appeared to be a long career, filled with blockbuster hit after blockbuster hit, turned into one ridiculed on the basis of one box office bomb after another. That never stopped him from continuing to put out films. “Split” is his latest attempt to regain some of what made him a relevant director/writer. It can certainly be argued he has found his groove once again.

“Split” follows the life of Kevin Wendall Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative identity disorder. Crumb captures three teens: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula). In interactions with Crumb, the three girls begin to realize there is something particularly strange about him as various personalities begin emerging. Between his visits with the captured girls, Crumb visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). It emerges that Crumb has a total of 23 separate personalities, some of which are more prominent and dominant than others. In a race against time, the girls plot an escape in hopes of avoiding a run-in with Crumb’s newest rumored personality, “The Beast.”

If for no other reason than to see McAvoy’s stellar performance, “Split” is well worth viewing. Not many actors are given the opportunity to play eight different roles within the same film, but McAvoy does so with ease. He is especially on point when he is portraying the personas of Barry and Hedwig. McAvoy’s face enamors as he captures many of the personas in his expressions. The way he postures himself allows the audience to buy into the differences displayed on screen. If “Split” were a slightly more respected film, there are no doubts that McAvoy would be in the conversation for an Academy Award.

Taylor-Joy holds her own opposite McAvoy. Adding to a growing resume, which includes the main role in last year’s critically acclaimed indie horror film, “The Witch.” Her nuanced mix of sadness and confidence keeps viewers asking questions throughout. In a couple scenes where she is left alone with McAvoy’s numerous characters, she is believable as a young woman desperately negotiating her way out of the nightmare she is living. Not to the same extent as McAvoy, but Taylor-Joy provides an impressive performance that should coax people into seeking out future work.

Most not to his credit. Shyamalan is known to unleash some rather bizarre characters and experiences upon his audiences. In “Split,” it almost works to perfection, but lands just a little bit short. The climax of the film brings out one of those bizarre experiences. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it doesn’t quite work, but it’s somewhere between not preparing the audience for what transpires and just being a little too over the top. Because of the film’s PG-13 rating in place of an R rating, these moments come across as being anti-climactic. Shyamalan had a chance to really etch his film into viewers’ minds, but may have let it drift away for some.

Not well advertised, “Split” has a connection to one of Shyamalan’s previous works, and it makes a difference. What seems to be a forgettable ending brought much greater appreciation in the context of its relation to the other film. It certainly sets the stage for an opportunity to thoroughly connect the two plots with another film. The intrigue of what might come next makes this experience well worth it. The twists of Shyamalan’s early work made him a house hold name in the early 2000s. He has since lost that credibility. His precise conclusion here not only connects “Split” to that time when things were good for him, but shows that magic isn’t completely gone.

Although not his best work, Shyamalan has seemingly found a little bit of what captured audiences almost two decades ago. “Split” is worth seeing to witness premier performances from its leading actors and regain faith in Shyamalan as an innovative filmmaker. It is rare to find an entertaining film worth seeing during the lull before the big stuff starts emerging in the spring. January and February typically are reserved for those films that didn’t quite cut it, but are being released to make some money back. “Split” shouldn’t fall into that category. Whether it is seen in the theater or at home, “Split” is a worthy watch for movie-goers of all kinds.


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