It’s an M. Night Shyamalan film. Run for the hills! Of course, ten years ago we’d be saying the exact opposite of the once adored film-maker. Dubbed the new Hitchcock by many, his films including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs heralded a bold, exciting new time for cinema.
Fast forward a decade and his reputation is as good as dead. With flops like The Lady in the Water, After Earth and The Last Airbender mucking up his CV, it’s hardly surprising that audiences have stayed well away from his offerings and studios are reluctant to hire him.
Nevertheless, Universal has given the director another chance. He’s back with Split, a film both directed and written by Shyamalan himself. Are we looking at a return to form, or just another load of jumbled nonsense?
Kevin (James McAvoy) has evidenced 23 different and very unique personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), but there remains one still submerged who is set to materialise, promising to dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the wilful, observant Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him – as well as everyone around him – as the walls between his compartments shatter.
Those of you familiar with Shyamalan’s early work will find much to enjoy here as the director returns to his roots, showcasing a story with more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly. His use of confined spaces and point of view shots creates a terrifically claustrophobic atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout Split’s succinct 117 minute running time.
James McAvoy is absolutely astounding, managing to channel different personalities and changing between them at the drop of a hat. It’s mightily imposing and brings the actor forward into a new light – this is award worthy it’s that good. Anna Taylor-Joy and Betty Buckley are both likeable with the rest of the cast blending into the background somewhat against these three impressive characterisations.
The technical aspects of film-making have always been Shyamalan’s strongest suit, whilst his writing skills have been, shall we say, lacking. However, the intriguing plot in Split is up there with his best work and his return to form is remarkable. The cinematography is great and the coupling of the dark, eerie locations with haunting music only adds to the thrill.
It’s not all good news, though. The first 80 minutes are nicely filmed, well-acted and deeply unnerving. Unfortunately, a tonal shift at a critical turning point in the film shatters the illusion somewhat and threatens to bring you back out of what is a genuinely immersive experience, though the trademark Shyamalan twist works exceptionally well here.
Overall, Split is a thrilling return to form for a director who had all but lost his mojo. With a spell-binding performance from James McAvoy and a very well-written script, this is a film that highlights the art of film-making in a simple fashion; one that shows you don’t need a massive budget to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.