“An outing takes a sinister turn for three teenage friends (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) when they are kidnapped by a ruthless stranger (James McAvoy) and imprisoned in his basement. They soon learn that their captor has multiple-personality disorder, forcing them to plot their escape without ever knowing which of his 23 personas -- young or old, male or female, benign or monstrous -- they will confront on the way out. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” – AllMovie
After spending some well deserved time in the director’s doghouse for the crimes he committed against The Last Airbender, M. Night Shyamalan finally earned his reprieve with 2015’s The Visit. The low budget thriller was a welcome return to form for the once-proclaimed heir to Spielberg; full of mystery, wit, and of course, one of Shyamalan’s patented ‘tweest’ endings. Now his comeback is complete with Split, a little $9-million flick that has, as of this writing, grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office.
For the most part, Split is a decent, though average horror-thriller elevated primarily by James McAvoy’s portrayal of Kevin… and Dennis… and Patricia and Hedwig and Barry and… well, you get the idea. Required to switch personas on a dime, McAvoy does most of the heavy lifting in the movie, pulling off a pretty convincing array of characters who all happen to share the same body. And near the end, when all his personalities start emerging at once, he becomes a veritable one-man acting class in body language and voice inflection.
Of course, no man is an island. McAvoy does get a little help from his supporting cast. Betty Buckley’s mannered and controlled psychiatrist acts as a nice foil for McAvoy to play off of. Plus, she’s able to convincingly spout all the psychobabble we need to understand what’s going on with McAvoy’s character, which is extremely important near the end when the film starts to get a little loopy.
And then there’s Anya Taylor-Joy as the most capable of McAvoy’s captives. She manages to take a role that, in these kind of movies, is typically reserved for generic obnoxious twenty-somethings, and turn it into something somewhat believable and interesting. Combine this performance with her one-two punch in Morgan and The Witch from last year, and you’ve got an up and coming actress whom genre fans would be more than happy to see make a career out of appearing in horror films.
Except that Split isn’t really a horror movie. Yes, it looks and plays like one for the first one hour and fifty minutes of its running time, but then something happens. Basic human decency prevents me from spoiling the ‘tweest,’ but suffice to say there is a revelation in the final few minutes of the film that completely changes what came before. In what is probably his greatest magic trick yet, Shyamalan has spent an entire film misdirecting his audience into thinking they are seeing one kind of movie, when in fact they have been watching something entirely different. It’s a reveal of biblical proportions.
And I mean that literally. In this week’s reading from Matthew, we learn that “Jesus said to his disciples: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” Among other things, this is Jesus making a straight-up typological reference to how he, Christ, is prefigured in the Old Testament. Taken alone, the Old Testament is an outstanding story of how God interacts with and shepherds his chosen people, the Jews, through many a trial and tribulation. It ends on a hopeful note that a messiah is coming who will lead them to their true destiny. Most Jews at the time interpreted that to mean a great military leader would arise and trample their enemies into dust.
But then Jesus is revealed to the world, and he basically tells the Jews, “Sorry, that’s not the movie you’re in.” Yes, he will fulfil the promises of the Old Testament, but not in any way that was expected. Oh, the clues were all right there in the old stories, but everyone missed them until the author of it all pulled away the veil and showed them, and us, what was really going on. Quite the trick. Well played, God.
What M. Night Shyamalan has pulled off with Split isn’t on that level, obviously, but as a bit of cinematic chicanery, it’s up there with the best. And after a long time, it’s finally nice to be able to say once again, “I can’t wait for the next Shyamalan movie.” Welcome back from your banishment, old friend.