Movie Review: Split
PG-13 | 1h 57min
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
by Jason Koenigsberg
Split has been writer/director M. Night Shyamalan’s biggest hit since his breakout film The Sixth Sense way back in 1999. Is it as good as it’s box office numbers indicate? Surprisingly yes. Split is a tense thriller that actually gets more nerve-wracking as the story moves along and the third act makes up for a slow and meandering middle portion.
The opening shot is of a girl looking at something off screen. The camera stays on her for a few seconds and then rack focuses to some girls sitting behind her and they appear to be at a party. The girl in the opening shot is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the outstanding young actress from last years horror film The Witch. The opening shot lets us know that her character will be the clear focal point of Split. We learn early on that this girl is a bit of a misfit, then about five minutes into the film she and two other girls get abducted in a parking lot in broad daylight. They are kidnapped by James McAvoy’s character and that moment has been shown in every trailer and TV spot.
Usually with M. Night Shyamalan films, his direction and screenplay are the main points of interest involving some sort of twist or eerie ambiance. However, this is the first film he has directed where his obvious direction takes a back seat to the performances. Anya Taylor-Joy is terrific as the film’s heroine, but James McAvoy delivers one of his best performances as a disturbed man with twenty-three different personalities living inside his body. McAvoy plays unhinged very convincingly and through only his facial expressions the audience can tell which personality is inhabiting his body at any given moment.
The claustrophobic setting is reminiscent of last years 10 Cloverfield Lane with a very effective minimalist set design. Shyamalan also chose to have minimal to no music in Split. This hindered some of the scenes that were meant to be suspenseful. Split could have benefited from a Bernard Herrmann-esque score similar to James Newton Howard’s music from Shyamalan’s Signs (2002).
The director also took a minimalist route with the cinematography which partially paid off. He made good use of framing in many scenes where shots of James McAvoy had him placed in his own squares or rectangles separated from the other actors in the shot composition. The first hour of Split delves into the technical psychological aspects of multiple personality disorder with McAvoy frequently visiting a therapist played by Betty Buckley. For these scenes Shyamalan fell in love with a lot of close ups. He used more of those and extreme close ups of the actors eyes and faces with scenes between the kidnapped girls and McAvoy. At first it seemed passable but then just felt like lazy direction with an immobile camera placed on close ups of the actors faces. The cinematography could have also benefited from a more interesting color scheme and low key lighting. Instead most of the time everything just looked as well lit as a doctors office until the final act.
Despite the weaknesses in the direction and cinematography, the acting and a suspenseful climax make Split worth recommending. James McAvoy gives one of his best performances as a man with multiple personalities stemming from having serious mommy issues and the main girl by play Anya Taylor-Joy does more than just play a girl that needs to be saved and illustrates believable layers to her character after the script sheds some light on her dark past. Plus, Shyamalan scraps his usual “twist” gimmick but delivers a different type of surprise at the end which was more pleasant than most of his recent scripts. The result is a flawed but solid and entertaining thriller and Shyamalan’s best film since Unbreakable (2000).