Since The Sixth Sense M.Night Shyamalan’s career has been steadily going downhill, especially regarding the quality of his output. He reached rock bottom somewhere between The Last Airbender and After Earth and from then on he’s name became a joke. He improved with his low budget, back to basics horror film The Visit which has strong links to his latest film, Split. Both Split and The Visit feature mentally ill people as the antagonist of the movie, Split is about a guy named Kevin (James McAvoy) a man who has 23 personalities who kidnaps a group of girls. He has weekly visits to his psychologist who believes that people with Dissociative identity disorder (DID) not only change their personality but their own genetics.
Split is M. Night's best film in over a decade even if it has plenty of flaws. There’s lots that is very impressive about the film, the central narrative where the trio of girls try to escape their captor makes for often tense viewing and Mike Gioulakis' superb cinematography heightens the tension with use of claustrophobic close ups in the tight interiors of the basement. The tension is released somewhat when proceedings take place outside the basement, these scenes, where Kevin meets Betty Buckley’s psychologist, allow the film to step away from its potentially exploitative plot line. It is done well enough to flesh out Kevin’s character, and not only make him an intimidating character but also, at times, a sympathetic one.
Where M.Night struggles is balancing the multiple tones of the film because of Kevin’s different personalities (which include an intense compulsive cleaner, a camp fashion designer, and a nine-year old child) which bring about a number of different reactions to the clearly evident tonal shifts. This can result in a very jarring experience as M.Night doesn’t successfully transition from tone to tone. There’s also a plot point, which at first doesn’t seem to build to anything, that feels very cliched and generic, a lazy reason to give a central character a back story.
The plaudits are obviously going to go to James McAvoy and his fine performance. These plaudits are mostly very well deserved because it is an impressive physical performance where he not only changes the personalities of his multiple characters but their facial expressions, take for example where the change from Barry to Dennis is noticeable because the more curt facial expression that appears on Kevin's face. It’s a good performance but not a great one as, whilst he goes full out in his performance, there was still more room for his character to be more intimidating and more sympathetic. In a lower key, and perhaps even stronger performance, is an impressive Anya Taylor-Joy whose tough and resource Cassie hides a dark backstory that may play a major role in what is about to come.
Split is a substantial improvement over almost all of his works since The Village but the film is a bit of a mess at times and sometimes struggles to juggle its many jarring tonal shifts.