While so many of M. Night Shyamalan‘s movies feature a really slow build before you figure out what the jeopardy is, Split wastes little time. A girl named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) standing by herself at her classmate’s party was essentially the victim of a mercy invite, and isn’t able to catch a ride home. The birthday girl, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), generously encourages her to catch a ride with her, her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), and her dorky dad. As they sit and wait in the car, dad starts loading the trunk, and suddenly sees someone–the camera cleverly and frustratingly keeps moving away to the girls’ oblivious perspective so you can’t quite tell what’s happening until a creepy stranger (James McAvoy) is suddenly in the driver’s seat, and before the young ladies can figure out what’s up, they’re unconscious, waking up in one of those large, windowless vault/warehouse/whatever-the-heck-it-is places that movie arch-villains seem to always have access to. And when the stranger shows up again, he’s not the same, evincing multiple personalities (all McAvoy) that primarily include an OCD Southerner who gets off on watching them dance, a woman with a subdued and sinister manner, and a child who seems easier to manipulate. All three suggest that the girls are intended to be food for a “beast” that’s coming soon.
If any of that sounds like major spoiling, rest assured that’s just the first sequence of the movie. If you were expecting an inevitable “twist” like the one you see in every other multiple personality movie–i.e. that a character you thought was someone else is actually just an extra personality–you are, mercifully, wrong. As with The Visit, Shyamalan makes excellent use of limited locations to create claustrophobia and tension as the girls try to escape their predicament, with occasional flashbacks to Casey’s childhood and cutaways to McAvoy’s character seeing his doctor (Betty Buckley) as she tries to figure him out.
Opinions are likely to be, well, split, on the movie overall–any viewers who feel permanently soured on Shyamalan may be annoyed by some of his usual tricks, including the way some characters are just deadpan exposition dumps, the way he thinks quiet is automatically frightening (it is, mostly), and the Signs-like manner in which he frequently builds scares by having characters see things through cracks in doors. How you feel overall about it, though, is likely to hinge on how you like McAvoy’s fearless, showy performance as he flips from one role to the next, sometimes within the same scene, like a more frightening version of Jim Carrey as Ace Ventura. Advocates for the mentally ill may be offended by the portrayal, and not without justification, but in the end it’s a bit like saying Norman Bates is an insensitive character. On one level, yes, Hollywood has a track record of demonizing the “crazy”; on another, he’s very clearly a “movie psycho” with a disorder that was undoubtedly invented to fit the script.
Taylor-Joy is easier to praise without reservation; her Casey is in some ways a classic Final Girl, but she doesn’t have to be traumatized into it; from the moment her co-prisoners suggest fighting back, she’s looking to fight smartly, analyzing her opponent and her surroundings for signs of weakness, and using every tactic at her disposal, including manipulation. In flashbacks, young Izzie Coffey matches Taylor-Joy well with a performance as young Casey, whose life experiences allow her to correctly assess the present-day situation as one of predator and prey.
I’m one of those Shyamalan fans who actually liked After Earth, so I may not be the best to assess Split as a comeback (I did hate The Last Airbender as much as everyone else, however). It is certainly a throwback, though–like The Visit, it reminds you that suspense is his natural milieu, while also making clear that some of the aspects of his work that have been considered unintentional camp are in fact his deliberate, deadpan sense of humor in play. And it ends in a manner that–without cheating the story at hand–made me want a sequel right away.
I know it’s going to be divisive, and I know some of you will think I’m topsy-turvy on this. But if you can remember ever loving Shyamalan’s films before, and are excited that he’s back in his wheelhouse, I believe we’ll have common ground on this one.
Rating: 4 burritos.
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor, a feat he has achieved while also being a dead alien allergic to water this whole time. Enjoy his Twitter feed.