Three young women get abducted in a parking lot and awake to find themselves locked up underground. Eventually they come to find that their captor suffers from Disassociate Identity Disorder with 23 personalities, and deadly 24th on the way.
Following the success of his last film The Visit, audiences and critics believed M. Night Shyamalan may have gotten his horror mojo back. They assumed correctly, most especially with Split. It’s a very smart and intense horror film with plenty of interesting ideas going for it in the script regarding human ability and the exploration of DID. The intensity of the overall film is established in the opening scene alone where the girls are abducted. The scene feels so authentic and it’s extremely unsettling, Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy give a great preview of what’s to come with their performances. And right after this scene we get the opening credits that are fantastic and very Hitchcockian. Any of the scenes involving the girls and McAvoy’s character(s) are heart pounding and intense, so whenever we get scenes between McAvoy and Betty Buckley as his psychologist are almost like a relief sequence to catch our breaths and relax a little.
The character of Kevin (McAvoy) is cleverly written, even if we don’t get much of Kevin, and mostly see 4 of his primary personalities prior to the 24th known as the Beast being unleashed. There’s more at hand involving these personalities, but it’s really complex and makes more sense when you see the film. We also are given gradual insight to Casey as a character through flashbacks that thankfully don’t overstay their welcome, but it’s a huge payoff in end when it all fits together with everything we’ve seen. But in the suspenseful scenes, you never know which personality is going to come out and which one will lead these girls to their doom. What I really loved is that we have 3 girls who are written differently compared to most films about girls being captured. The two supporting girls are smarter than average and are immediately into survival mode instead of crying and screaming the whole time. They’re smart, but sometimes their smarts get them into trouble. It’s Taylor-Joy’s character that is the ultimate final girl material. She keeps her cool and actually tries to think things through in order to survive and uses her intuition to try save herself and the other two girls.
What I was disappointed about was we don’t get a terrible amount of time with the three girls together to develop them as a group, nor do we get a terrible amount of insight on the other two girls either. Of course due to some of the personalities of Kevin being a child named Hedwig, and a posh woman name Patricia, those result in a few chuckles. But as mentioned, those laughs can lead to “oh shit” moments when anything can lead to disaster, not knowing when the Beast will show up or even really what the Beast is. It really keeps you on edge and on your toes. I will say that if you’re expecting a twist, or even a turn in plot, there’s nothing really here as far as that. There is a final scene that offers a particular cameo, which is more of a treat than anything, but also feels tacked on and not particularly necessary, but it was cool nonetheless.
James McAvoy provides my favorite performance of his by far. He does such an amazing job of capturing all of these personalities, and his ability to instantly change them in an instant and transition into them is perfect. In his first scene you are immediately terrified by the personality in which he starts out as. Even in the personalities that don’t come off as immediately threatening will leave you unsettled. For example, the Patricia personality has this calm nature to her, but you can’t help but feel rattled by her, and it’s really thanks to McAvoy. It’s definitely one of the best performances I’ve seen in a mainstream film, right up there with John Goodman’s performance in last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. Anya Taylor-Joy is equally excellent in her role as our lead protagonist Casey. Anya captures Casey’s emotions flawlessly, we can sense her will to survive, but also the fear she feels. I saw it in her breakthrough role in The Witch and in the very underrated Morgan, Anya is an actress who doesn’t even need dialogue to turn in a powerful performance. She uses facial expressions and emotions to her fullest advantage and she sells the hell out of it. She’s hands-down the best new actress to grace the screen right now. The two supporting girls played by Haley Lu Richardson and and Jessica Sula do well with their roles in the limited screen time they have and work with it how they can and do well in capturing their characters. Betty Buckley turns in a solid performance as well as Kevin’s psychologist. She starts off as your basic shrink, but then as she begins to investigate what’s going on with Kevin she becomes almost comparable to Donald Pleasance in Halloween (I know this is a ballsy comparison), but she knows Kevin is now her monster than she has to confront, and she does it with gusto, especially in the final act.
M. Night Shyamalan is easily back in his horror roots and ready to provide the chills and thrills we’ve loved from him in the past. Not only with his excellent direction, but his very clever and smart script. But it’s McAvoy and Taylor-Joy who really make this movie work with their ability to really make their characters pop and make us feel terror from McAvoy and the emotions from Taylor-Joy.