This deeply unsettling thriller is a welcome return to form for writer-director M. Night Shyamalan.
In 2013, three women escaped from a home in Cleveland, Ohio, then shocked the world by revealing they'd been kidnapped and kept prisoner by one man for over a decade. It's hard not think that their harrowing tale may have played a part in the conception of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller, Split, which begins in a very similar fashion. Three young girls, all in their teens, are drugged and abducted in broad daylight outside of a shopping mall, only to wake up imprisoned in a bunker with no idea where they are, who took them, or why.
That is, until they meet Dennis.
Played by James McAvoy, Dennis is a cold, meticulous and physically brutal force. He's nothing like Patricia, the matronly British lady (also played by James McAvoy), who assures the girls they'll not be touched or harmed in any way. Then there's Hedwig (played by...James McAvoy) who's just a small boy who loves to dance to Kanye, and Barry (James McAvoy) a fashion designer constantly reassuring his shrink that everything's under control and…well…you get the idea.
Rest assured though, this isn't some sort of Eddie Murphy costume romp where he's playing every character. Rather, McAvoy plays a collective of 23 distinct personalities competing for 'the light' within the body of one man named Kevin. Within this extraordinary case of DID (dissociative identity disorder), some personalities want the girls freed, whilst others appear to be preparing them for the arrival of the yet unseen 24th identity which they refer to only as 'the beast'.
The burden of carrying the film, unsurprisingly, sits almost exclusively with McAvoy, whose performance more than rises to the challenge. Shyamalan actually filmed each of Kevin's identities as though they were portrayed by a different actor and the technique absolutely pays off. Each one feels different, and you soon think of them accordingly. Some you fear, others you warm to and none feel at all like the man playing them.
The other performance of note comes from Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch). Introduced as a loner from the opening scene, Casey resists the others' suggestions of attempting an escape in favour of befriending the more approachable identities within Kevin, sparking additional conflict within an environment already dripping with tension. Taylor-Joy's a terrific actress with a long future ahead of her, and it's her scenes with McAvoy where Split is at its best. Filmed almost entirely in extreme closeups – a device that leaves audiences wondering what unseen menace might be lurking just off screen – McAvoy's unpredictability keeps the levels of menace high, while Taylor-Joy's enormous, soulful eyes speak volumes when words aren't (or can't) be spoken.
Ever since The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan has been plagued by the expectation that his films will feature an unpredictable twist, a promise on which he's been mostly unable to deliver. Depending on your perspective, the finale of Split either sheds itself of that expectation entirely or doubles down and hits you with something even larger. Maybe it's both. Either way, the end result is almost certainly Shyamalan's best film since his breakout; a welcome return to form and an exciting precursor to whatever comes next.