Writer/Director/Producer M. Night Shyamalan has had a turbulent career. Breaking out in 1999 with The Sixth Sense he found huge success until 2004. For the next 10 years, it was the complete opposite. One disaster after another.
In recent years he’s had more traction producing for TV. While working in that medium, he came up with the idea for Split and it’s his first cohesive and entertaining cinematic piece in a long time. It’s nice to see a talent find his space again.
Split is very simple to explain, which is the first right step from MNS. Three teenagers are kidnapped by a man who has multiple, distinct personalities. While held in some kind of basement, the girls meet many of the personalities. Between his captives and his psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, we see that the personalities are losing control to a festering new one called The Beast. Time is running out to escape.
The bulk of the movie rides on James McAvoy’s fantastic performance. He believably changes right before your eyes. All the tension comes from him, I think some of his best work is in this movie. Anya Taylor-Joy as the heroine, Casey, does a terrific job as well. MNS made Casey complex and smart. I appreciate the depth he put into her and Taylor-Joy makes her a new favorite character of mine. Educated by her father to be smart about the world around her and a survivor at a young age, she actively works to get herself and the others to safety every chance she gets.
The suspense and intrigue is really fantastic through the whole movie. MNS keeps this story cut close with its characters and pacing. It wastes no time getting the story going and each moment inside the basement and the brief times out of it do essential story telling, It’s cut down to the essentials and it’s paced really well. Being contained largely to the basement adds to the claustrophobia and the bits with Dr. Fletcher are gasps of air used to reimmerse you into the pit of despair. Great direction and cinematography make the limited sets come to life (I really liked how running down the narrow hallway was done, shades of Nightmare on Elm Street’s boiler room).
Split is effective film making. It shows how much you can do with a small, talented cast and a few sets. With the ending that hooks it into Unbreakable, my favorite MNS movie, I hope this ball keeps rolling in the right direction.