(Some spoilers…sorry folks!)
Allow me to preface this review with stating that it would be pretty difficult to talk about M Night Shyamalan’s latest foray into the thriller genre without leaking some spoilers about the plot. Consider this as more of an analysis than a review. Additionally, I’ll be mentioning some other well-known thrillers with infamously big plot twists (namely Identity (2003) and Fight Club 1999)…you’ve been warned!
Shyamalan in recent years has gone from being a household name infamous for his jolting last-minute plot twists, to a derided director known to churn out flop after terrible flop. His ‘golden age’ of directing began with The Sixth Sense in 1999, and abruptly ended in 2001 with his supernatural horror The Other’s. In-between the release of these two films, and just before Shaymalan’s career took a nose-dive with the likes of The Village (2004) and Signs (2002) – to name but a few of his failed flicks – was Unbreakable (2000). We’ll come back to that film shortly. After several years of poorly-received films and having relegated himself to the ‘has-been’ category of directors, has Shyamalan finally managed to redeem himself with his latest blockbuster?
Flash-forward to the 2016 release of Split, a film whose premise is unambiguously spelt out in the title. Split follows the fates of three teenage girls who find themselves abducted by a man who it quickly becomes obvious has ‘split personalities’: or Dissociative Identity Disorder, to give the condition it’s proper title. The multiple personality theory is far from an original concept in film, and has become a particular fascination in thriller movies: think Edward Norton’s depressed insomniac and his manic alternate-ego in Fight Club (1999), or John Cusack as one of 10 personalities of a serial killer in Identity (2003). That said though, Split somehow remains fresh: and this is in no small part thanks to James McAvoy, who brings to life the several different personalities of the main antagonist Kevin.
James McAvoy’s performance is, by far, what pushes the film from mediocracy to something close to brilliant. It’s a pretty left-field performance for an actor best known for his ‘good-guy’ casting, and it seems he has managed to shed his squeaky-clean demeanour. His performance in Split is both fascinating and unnerving, as he swings effortlessly from one distinct personality to the next. Neither the audience nor his hapless victims know who they will be encounter from one moment to the next: the stoney-faced anal neat-freak Dennis, the stern matriarchal Patricia or the guileless 9-year-old Hedwig.
It is the ‘ending twist’, if you can call it that, which has caused the most stir around the release of Split. In the final scene it if revealed, via a convenient Bruce Willis cameo, that the film takes place in the same ‘universe’ as Unbreakable (2000), linking the two films. For anyone who hadn’t watched Unbreakable, this twist would be both meaningless and pointless. Those who had seen the film, would have likely gasped knowingly and felt like they were part of a special group of people in on the joke. Ultimately, it raises more questions than answers, as is typical of Shyamalan’s films, and hints at the birth of a franchise.
Admittedly, it would be both interesting and well-timed. Superhero movies have perhaps never been more popular than they are right this minute, and thanks to Marvel the superhero franchise has become a whole new genre in it’s own right, grossing billions of pounds in the box office. Both Unbreakable and Split, explore the possibility of humans with extraordinary powers – however do so in a very grounded way. Kevin and his ‘Beast’ personality are seemingly indestructible, after several shot-gun rounds into his torso barely leave a scratch. In Unbreakable Bruce Willis is likewise, well, unbreakable. There’s no flamboyant capes or costumes here: both films are gritty and raw. So are we witnessing the birth of a new type of superhero (or in this instance, super-villain) movie, one without any comic book origin, and blurring the line between the superhero and horror genres? It will certainly be interesting to see where Shyamalan goes next.
Overall rating: 7.6 out of 10