Former wunderkind M. Night Shyamalan has, to put it mildly, not had such a great last 10 years or so. After a string of notable failures (The Happening, The Last Airbender, After Earth), it was quite obviously time for a career refresh. So Shyamalan decided to shift back to more simple, pure horror films, forging a partnership with uber-producer Jason Blum. The first project to come out of the new agreement, 2015’s The Visit, was a fun surprise, a refreshingly back-to-basics film that was among the year’s more notable horror releases and may just have saved Shyamalan’s career. Shyamalan has stayed firmly in the horror genre with his latest collaboration with Blum, this week’s buzzed-about new release Split.
Split stars James McEvoy in one of the best roles of his career as a man with Disassociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young women (among them The VVitch’s terrific Anya Taylor-Joy). Once the women learn of his 23 distinct personalities –and hear tell of a 24th, the most dangerous one yet—they immediately get to work formulating a plan to escape before it’s too late. In true Shyamalan style, to reveal much more about this film would be to violate this site’s “no spoilers” decree. There are a great deal of twists and turns in the story, and the suspense is heightened right up until the closing credits roll. Split is engaging, and fascinating, through the length of its nearly two-hour run time.
Such a story would be far less effective were it not for its performances. The two key roles are Taylor-Joy’s Casey, the token outcast-turned-de facto leader of the trio of prisoners, and McEvoy’s character(s), who we’ll go back to in a moment. Taylor-Joy is a truly promising talent in a performance packed with the nuance and maturity of an actress three times her age. She elevates Casey above your average disposable horror “damsel in distress” and truly makes you root for and feel for her. She is strong but vulnerable, intelligent but flawed, determined but terrified, sometimes all at once. Taylor-Joy handily holds her own against McEvoy.
This, by the way is no small feat. As stated earlier, James McEvoy is nothing short of phenomenal in this role. As he cycles through different characters, sometimes more than once in a scene, he gives each one a fully fleshed-out personality, down their own tics and cadences of speaking. Oscar-caliber performances in mainstream genre films are quite rare—Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Hannibal Lecter being the gold standard—but in a just world without genre bias a case could certainly be made for McEvoy to get some love from the Academy this time next year. At any rate this is easily the best performance of his already impressive career.
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Split has already raised red flags in some circles for depicting a character with DID as a dangerous kidnapper. The film itself tells a far more complex story, from the point of view of not only the main antagonist but the trio of victims as well. Split takes its cues from time-honored horror tropes, but the real “Shyamalan Twist” is that the story and characters refuse to settle into them and instead grow and unfold in fascinating ways. Having actors like McEvoy and Taylor-Joy as your leads certainly doesn’t hurt matters either. Split is further evidence that Shyamalan’s earlier films like The Sixth Sense and the underrated Unbreakable were more than just flukes, and that he’s learned that sometimes the best way is just to tell the simplest stories in the most extraordinary ways.
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