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“Split” Showcases Strong Acting Talent and Intriguing Camerawork in Shayamalan’s Best Film Since “Unbreakable”

Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller Split will not make audiences forget about the director’s most embarrassing missteps, but the film evokes The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable more than The Happening and After Earth. The film follow the abduction of three teenage girls by a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Known to us as “Kevin”, the man harbors 23 distinct personalities, and as some of them begin to run things, we’re confronted with a powerful force living inside Kevin – a 24th personality known only as “The Beast”.  The film is commendable for its uses of classic camera techniques to disorient the audience and ratchet up the more realistic aspects of the film, while downplaying the more fantastic and silly elements.  Aided by two spectacular performances (and a collection of other strong ones), Split is easily the best film Shyamalan has made in over a decade – and may be second only to The Sixth Sense.

The plot isn’t much more complex than I have already laid out.  The film opens at public party where one girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) has only been invited as a courtesy.  Friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) tell Claire’s father that it is okay to leave Casey, but he insists on giving Casey a ride home.  In the parking lot, the three girls are abducted by a stranger who we come to learn is Kevin (James McAvoy), the man dealing with 23 separate personalities.  The remainder of the film details the girl’s horror and slow realization of Kevin’s pathology, and attempts by Casey to take advantage of some of Kevin’s kinder personalities to effect an escape.  The narrative is also punctuated by Kevin’s visits to his therapist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who begins to suspect that something is awry.

The strength of Split is derived from two main sources: the strong performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy, and some astounding camerawork from Shyamalan and his DP, Mike Gioulakis (It Follows).  Together, these aspects heighten what would otherwise be a fairly rote kidnapping thriller.

At the center of it all is James McAvoy and his collection of characters.  Though billed as having 23 distinct personalities (with a 24th representing the major threat of the film), McAvoy only received billing for eight of the personalities, because those are the only ones that appear on screen.  There’s the “official” personality Kevin Wendell Crumb, but we only see him sparingly.  Kevin’s mind is described through the metaphor of all of these personalities sitting in a circle of chairs, and whichever one, “has the light”, gets to control the body.  Kevin has the light infrequently in the story, as a recent conflict has placed two more domineering characters in charge:  Barry, the man responsible for the kidnapping, and Patricia, a strict woman who oversees the health of the captive girls.  The final “main” character in Kevin is Hedwig, a young boy who befriends the girls and represents their best chance for escape.  The other personalities are ancillary, so don’t expect to see them all equally.

Anna Taylor-Joy, first introduced to me in the fantastic horror film The VVItch, again delivers a stunning performance.  She lends her character Casey a reserved sadness, for sure, but Casey is no pushover.  She’s easily the most clever of the abductees and the most capable.  She also has a kind of patient observation about her that serves her and her friends well throughout the film, and we understand how she developed these skills in a few flashback sequences to her as a five-year-old.  Aside from a few exchanges with Hedwig where she is trying to convince him to help her, Taylor-Joy has precious few lines in the script, so most of her performance is in her face.  She’s able to convey emotion with both clarity and subtlety, whether that is the horror of recognizing that she is about to be kidnapped, the inkling of an idea for an escape, or a suppressed sadness.  It’s great, and coupled with some of the camerawork that I mentioned earlier, incredibly powerful.

A large portion of the thematic material is derived from the similarities between Kevin’s personalities and Casey’s.  Both individuals suffer from a traumatic past, and both have abnormal ways of coping with that trauma, as clearly evidenced by Kevin’s DID and as revealed later in the film for Casey (though, we could guess pretty easily given the earlier flashbacks).  These similarities breed a peculiar kind of mutual respect between Casey and Kevin, especially from Kevin’s kinder personalities.  The characterization also elevates the film from being a garden variety kidnapping slasher flick, and delivers a little more nuance (which will likely pay off in the future).

Before getting to the big twist (which I will not reveal; I’ll merely comment on its effectiveness), it is crucial to address some of the brilliant camera techniques used by Shyamalan and Gioulakis.  These techniques include:  strange camera orientations and angles, a habitual use of close-ups, and deliberate movement of the camera.

The camera is comfortable contorting the shot in a number of different ways in Split, with the blatant effect of disorienting the spectator.  There are times when the camera is tilted a full 90 degrees, and others when it looks down directly from the ceiling.  Sometimes these are shown to be shots from Casey’s POV, but other times they are not.  Regardless, these shots always impart a sense of uneasiness and a lack of control from the protagonists and the audience – we can’t even be certain that the shot is going to be oriented in a normal way!

Many, many close-ups contribute to the disorientation, but also practically force the spectator to empathize with the characters on screen.  Anya Taylor-Joy receives the majority of these close-ups, and hence it is clear from the early portion of the film that she is to be our main protagonist (of course, her flashbacks also make that quite evident).  This allows Taylor-Joy to fully flex her acting muscles, and it is astounding.  Definitely keep your eyes on her in the near future, especially for Marrowbone and Thoroughbred, both out later this year.  In addition to providing the perfect presentation of Taylor-Joy’s talents, this technique also sows some doubt in the minds of the audience – by providing multiple close-ups of James McAvoy too!  This helps soften his character a little bit, the effect of which is to root for the kinder personas over his more savage ones.

Finally, the camera is rarely stationary in Split.  The movement sometimes creates tension by following characters as they sneak around, and sometimes helps to articulate the hopelessness of their situation by revealing just how badly the odds are stacked against them.  It’s a small thing, but it also helps to keep the one-location set where the girls are trapped from becoming boring, as it seems that there is always something new the camera is trying to show you.

Now, to the twist.  Yes, this is an M. Night Shyamalan film, so there is definitely a twist to the ending.  In this particular case, I think the twist adds a great deal to the film, but it most certainly doesn’t inform the film’s overall quality.  I am 100% confident that knowing the “twist” beforehand will not detract from a viewer’s enjoyment of 99% of the film.  This is therefore a different kind of twist than is found in most of Shyamalan’s film, where the twists are intricately involved in the rest of the narrative.  This is more a twist which adds flavor, not plot.  In my eyes, it succeeds completely, and enhances my enjoyment of the film.  It also teases (and hopefully portends) more visits to the universe of Split.

It is encouraging to see that M. Night Shyamalan is still capable of making a strong film with interesting camerawork, great performances, and a story not beholden to a gimmick.  There will likely be many viewers who do not care for Split for many reasons, but I think even they will be hard-pressed to honestly group this film with the director’s very worst offerings.  Though it is a little light on thematic elements, the film does champion various ideas about coping with trauma, self-empowerment, and the power of the mind to control the body.  These ideas, coupled with two poignant and fun performances from McAvoy and Taylor-Joy, make Split a rewarding and intriguing thriller.

Thanks for reading my review of Split, which went on a bit longer than I had intended (I guess that happens when you write four paragraphs on camera tricks).  I’ve been an unabashed hater of M. Night Shyamalan ever since Signs started to show the seams of the director’s style, but I am glad that I finally enjoyed some of his work again.  How did you like Split, and do you place it closer to the director’s earlier works, or is this just an example of, “Not an absolute trainwreck like After Earth, but not great”?  How about McAvoy and Taylor-Joy?  Let me know down in the comments what you thought, and remember to like and SHARE this piece, especially on Facebook and Twitter (it really helps new people find my blog!)

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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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