Split follows Shyamalan’s clever little horror The Visit (2014), a film that delivered a chilling Shyamalan twist and plenty of dark comedy to sink your teeth into. However, does Split live up to its hype and will Shyamalan ever recapture the magic of his Sixth Sense glory days? Split begins with the sudden, somewhat frightening abduction of three teenage girls by a man we come to know as Dennis. We find out that Dennis likes to watch young women dance. Dennis is beyond creepy.
But Dennis is not alone. In fact, Dennis shares the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (is that the best name Shyamalan could come up with?) alongside twenty-three different personalities, all screaming to get out. However, there’s actually a 24th personality that has never reared its ugly head: the Beast. This personality is superhuman and, as promised by nine-year-old Hedwig in the trailer, “has done bad things and will do bad things to you”. Most of the action comes from the heroine of the film, Casey, played by Ana Major Turner who stunned in The Witch, in her fight to escape the labyrinth apartment she’s locked in.
The most exciting, truly mesmerising aspect of Split is James McAvoy. His performance in this film is a career-defining moment. What he does in Split is rarely seen in cinema. Tom Hardy and Jake Gyllenhaal are a select few who have played two parts in one feature, but five characters is almost unheard of. McAvoy slides from an effeminate, Boston fashion designer to a frightening old lady through a simple, imperceptible eye movement, akin to Antony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Split is an acting masterclass to any budding thespian. Ana Major Joy equally shines, striking the balance between a quiet melancholy and violent fearlessness. The scenes between Hedwig and Casey are the most emotionally wrought, enthralling and even comedic of the film, breathing life back into Split when the momentum lags.
But ultimately, this is simply not enough to make Split a convincingly good horror film. Shyamalan relies on exhausted tropes and the odd jump scare to try to create horror, but often falls flat.
The problematic convention of one girl being more worthy of life than her sidekick scream queens—who are given contrived dialogue, and deserve to die because they like their iPhones —has no place in modern horror. The beyond troubling representation of DID (dissociative identity disorder) further begs the question of Split’s ethics, or lack thereof. And besides all of this, the truth is that Split is just not that scary.
Speaking more generally, the film never quite picks up the momentum promised by the trailers. Tension is often drained with mundane and irrelevant scenes of exposition from Kevin’s therapist, treating the audience like students in a lecture theatre—can we ever escape?
This contributes to a stagnating pace that runs out of steam by the third act. Oh, and of course there’s the Shyamalan twist. Unfortunately, it is so conceited that it is created for an exclusive select few. Indeed, the twist is smart and re-frames everything, but could mislead audiences all the way back to The Sixth Sense (1999), further muddling an already messy film. Spoiler alert: watch Unbreakable (2002) first.
This film proves Shyamalan has a long way to go to re-realise his full potential as a screenwriter and director, however I’d still recommend giving it a watch purely for the thrill of watching McAvoy at the very top of his game.