Review: Split (AFI FILM FEST)
PLOT: Three teenage girls find themselves held captive by a strange man with mysterious intentions. They soon realize that he may be far more sinister than they had ever imagined.
REVIEW: M. Night Shyamalan has certainly had a unique career. With the massive success of THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS, it appeared that the filmmaker would have quite the resume. And then came THE HAPPENING, LADY IN THE WATER, THE LAST AIRBENDER and AFTER EARTH. With so many disappointments, it was refreshing to see the director take on a smaller film like THE VISIT. The low budget found footage flick took the less-is-more approach and it worked far better than anticipated. Perhaps it wasn’t a complete return to form, but it was a big step in the right direction. And thankfully, his follow up isn’t all that bad either.
When we first meet Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and her best pal Marcie (Jessica Sula), they are forced to give the strange kid at school a ride by Claire’s father (Sebastian Arcelus). The strange kid is Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and she has trouble connecting to her fellow students. However, the three girls are soon forced to deal with each other in an unexpected way. After a stranger kidnaps the three, they awake in a room together with no knowledge of where they are, or who took them and why. Things get even more bizarre when the man that captured them - a fantastic James McAvoy - begins to show strange personality traits.
In comparison to Shyamalan’s earlier work, there is a certain assuredness in SPLIT. This is a twisted tale with a slight hint of Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL. He plays the thriller angle straight, but there is definitely humor here. Most of that humor comes from McAvoy himself. There is also a necessary subplot involving his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (played by veteran actress Betty Buckley). Considering much of the film takes place in a room where Casey is kept, it still works better than you’d think. This is a well shot feature that manages to keep things suspenseful for the most part and much of that is expressed through Shyamalan's stylish visuals.
As far as the script is concerned, the build-up to the finale works well enough. Unfortunately, the creepy factor sometimes borders on being a bit silly. And while McAvoy give such a fascinating show, some of the dialogue is just plain dumb. When it comes to the girls, the performances are all good. However, we didn’t get much of a sense of who Claire and Marcie are, aside from a slightly stereotypical version of teen girls in jeopardy. That’s not to say that it’s all bad, in fact, it works more often than it doesn’t. Still, you can’t get away from the sometimes goofy nature that manages to seep in, even in the darkest moments. Perhaps that isn’t a terrible thing.
Fresh off her work in THE WITCH and MORGAN, Taylor-Joy is really terrific here. The actress is quite convincing as the weird teen with a secret she is hiding - yep, this wouldn’t be Shyamalan if it didn’t have a secret. The actress conveys a sense of believable strength making her the most interesting of the three girls. Yet both Haley Lu and Jessica are able to bring life to their work. Another surprise is a solid show from Buckley. She is especially good opposite McAvoy, and she may have the second most complicated role.
Ultimately, the reason why this works as well as it does is McAvoy. The actor takes the material and is able to make a captivating character out of the bizarre nature of this specific story. In writing this, I’d rather not give too much away about the character he portrays. A warning however, the trailer for the film reveals way more than I did here so you may want to avoid it if you haven’t seen it already. I will say that it is a risky turn that could have easily been a disaster with a lesser talent. He is able to bring a feverish tension to this mysterious man, at one time kind and innocent, and the next moment, he can be terrifying.
SPLIT is yet another step in the right direction for M. Night Shyamalan. The new film has an energy to it that has been lacking in a number of his big screen fables. Much of that comes from the inspired casting of James McAvoy. The actor gives this strange creature he has taken on a level of depth. Sure this story has much of the fanciful feel of the director’s less than great works, but it’s much more effective in this smaller setting. This twisted thriller may not rise to the heights of say THE SIXTH SENSE, but it is a fun popcorn flick that at times feels much smarter than it is. If you are looking for a creepy time at the movies with solid performances, this is a good place to start.