SPLIT **** USA 2016 Dir: M Night Shyamalan. 117 mins
Following the success of witty found-footage chiller THE VISIT, writer-director Shyamalan stuck with the kind of smart, bold, thoughtful genre pictures that made his name. There are echoes of John Lithgow’s RAISING CAIN showcase here in the form of James McAvoy’s show-stopping tour de force as a zoo worker with 23 personalities, the most hostile of which have become dominant. Under the command of “Dennis”, he kidnaps three teenagers while his sympathetic psychologist (veteran CARRIE actress Betty Buckley making a welcome screen comeback) realises how dangerous he is becoming despite years of successful treatment.
As with Shyamalan’s best, SPLIT is deceptively small-scale, with relatively sparse action and a dialogue-driven script largely confined to claustrophobic interiors. Beautifully shot and scored, its attention to detail extends to 24 duplicate credit rolls to mirror the final number of McAvoy’s personalities. His extraordinarily sympathetic / disturbing performance(s) never descends into cinematic pantomime despite transforming physically and mentally at regular intervals. Shyamalan has rarely depicted explicit violence onscreen, and here the considerable tension stems from the huge threat of violence, whether from the unnervingly buttoned-down Dennis or the emergent danger posed by the previously unseen 24th personality. Familiar horror-thriller scenarios (abduction thriller / mind-fuck schizo shocker) are given a fresh, thought-provoking spin, and the escalation to a full-blown chase in the final act is as intense as anything in the filmmaker’s back catalogue. The climactic confrontation between the empathetic heroine (the superb Anya Taylor-Joy) and McAvoy’s hitherto dormant monstrous persona is truly arresting. It also unleashes the best kept secret of Shyamalan’s twist-laden career, as a pastiche of a Marvel-style credits sting unveils a crossover with his long-underrated UNBREAKABLE that no one saw coming.
Review by Steven West