Movie Review: Split
By Ben Gruchow
January 24, 2017
The phrase “so-and-so filmmaker’s best work since x” is tediously overused. It’s the result of too many fingers hitting too many keyboards too soon after seeing the film in question, when the memory of it hasn’t been given a chance to linger and deepen or fade away into nothingness. This goes at least double for filmmakers who have had a run of mediocre-to-bad-to-holy-God-what-IS-this-thing? films in their recent history, because whatever percentage of the audience is made up of the faithful will almost certainly give every potential weak spot the benefit of the doubt. We do all want films to be good, yes? So when I say that Split is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film since Signs all the way back in 2002, it’s with the rider that: a) his period in between these two pieces of work is littered with mostly mediocre tripe, plus whatever the hell was going on in The Happening; and therefore b) this film doesn’t need to be all that great in order to be the best in a long time.
Still, though, it is his best work in almost 15 years: head and shoulders above 2015’s The Visit, a film I liked, and so many leagues beyond The Last Airbender that it might as well belong to a different cinematic history. It plays to most of Shyamalan’s strengths as a storyteller - his ability to shape something weird and uncomfortably askew out of a random situation, and transition that weirdness into horror or comedy seemingly at random; his desire to tie all of his themes together at once at the end, which lends most of his work a decidedly deterministic metaphysical outlook - and avoids most of his weaknesses (he has a big problem with contouring expository dialogue in a way that doesn’t sound penned by an intelligent and surpassingly media-saturated teenager).
It also has an ace up its sleeve that I don’t think any of his previous films have been able to match: a positively magnetic and well-rounded central performance by an actor faced with a list of impossible criteria and finding a way to excel anyway. This is James McAvoy’s turn as…well, a number of people, but chiefly as a man named Kevin; he shapes the demands in front of him effortlessly to the rhythms of Shyamalan’s story and to his own unique tics and strengths as an actor. He’s fearsomely good, and the single faultless item that Split orbits around for its entirety.
We do not get to spend much time with him except as an agent of action in other scenes, though. Most of our early time is spent among the three high-school girls he abducts in the movie’s opening sequence: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, excellent in last year’s The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, excellent in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen), and Marcia (Jessica Sula, not of a film from last year and therefore the one of the trio with the least screen time and character development). They’re sedated and taken to a windowless room below ground. There, they meet Dennis, played by McAvoy as an obsessive-compulsive recluse. They are to be sacrifices, he says. To what, we’re not told.