Many hailed 2015’s The Visit as a return to form for M. Night Shyamalan. Admittedly, the found-footage horror was a relative breath-of-fresh air from the director after a decade resounding critical duds. However, riding the tail end of a wave of shaky-cam horror, The Visit offered audiences nothing new, serving as little more than a pale reminder of the kind of suspense Shyamalan was once capable of. Split certainly evokes the kind of high-concept horror that kick-started the director’s career and is layered with enough moments of unnerving tension to remove fingernails to the quick – mostly thanks to a relentlessly creepy turn from James McAvoy. However, as screenwriter, Shyamalan makes some bizarre third-act decisions; Split thrills and disturbs in equal measure for most of its 116-minute run-time, but ultimately hits with a regrettable, unsatisfying thud.
After a birthday party, three teenage girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and reclusive Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) are kidnapped and brought to an underground bunker. Their captor, Kevin (McAvoy), immediately begins exhibiting some strange behaviour, visiting the girls’ cell under the guise of different personalities: the obsessive-compulsive creep that kidnapped them; a nine-year old boy; a middle-aged woman. It is soon revealed that Kevin, who spends his time away from his captives with his therapist Dr. Karin Fletcher (Betty Buckley), suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.) and exhibits twenty-three different personalities – some with more malicious intentions than others.
Information about Kevin’s disorder is gradually revealed to us through his meetings with Dr. Fletcher – what could be a cheap way to provide exposition functions pretty well as a means of injecting extra tension and a more sinister sense of danger into the girls’ situation. However, while we always know a little bit more than they do, there’s a consistent sense that anything could happen next – such is the nature of their captor’s mental state. The action in the bunker is captured with a wandering camera and minimal cuts, heightening the sense of claustrophobia but opening up the space for plenty of moments of nail-munching tension. Shyamalan knows how to build an unnerving atmosphere, capturing much of dialogue in alternating P.O.V. close-ups that lurch straight out in the spectator’s space. The Hitchcockian suspense is hinted at from the word go – Split’s very first shot is rendered with a Vertigo-esque dolly zoom. Accordingly, the film’s first half works remarkably well as an original exercise in suspense, intercut with a series of flashbacks in which it is abundantly clear something very bad is eventually going to happen.
Would this be a Shyamalan film without one of the director’s signature, now borderline-hackneyed twists? Split’s climactic twist is alluded to in abstractions throughout the film, and comes across more so like the unnatural progression of an increasingly out-there plot. When it drops, the narrative turn jars rather excessively with everything we’ve seen up until that point – what we’re left with is a very different film to the one we started watching an hour-and-a-half ago. To relinquish any further detail would be to outright spoil Split. Let’s just say what starts out as a relatively original psychological thriller suddenly takes a leap into high-concept horror, and leave it at that.
It’s this third act that really let’s Split down. We’re offered little payoff for the three girls’ tortuous experience and consequently, Split concludes with little or no satisfaction – the less said about the tacked on ending the better. While Shyamalan die-hards will be thrilled, most viewers will either leave scratching their heads or asking “what was the point of all that?” This one will certainly (ahem) split audiences down the middle. Shyamalan’s latest is worth a watch for its myriad moments of genuine suspense and a fiendishly entertaining performance from McAvoy – just don’t expect a full on return to form.