Just a few years ago, some thought filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan's career might be over. After a string of high-profile critical and commercial flops, like The Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth, the filmmaker returned last year, teaming up with producer Jason Blum for the "smallest" film of his career, The Visit. The film pulled in $65.2 million domestically and $98.4 million worldwide, from just $5 million to produce, eight times the budget of his 1999 smash hit The Sixth Sense. Early next year, Shyamalan and Blum team up again for Split, another (presumably) low-budget affair that delves into split-personality disorder with a bravura performance from James McAvoy.
While Split doesn't hit theaters until January 20, the film held its world premiere at Fantastic Fest in Austin this past September, and it was featured as one of the Special Screenings at AFI Fest last week in Los Angeles. What was strange, and rather fitting for this film, was that it screened at a rather unusual time, 10:30 PM, which is right between the midnight screenings block and the films that screen around 9 PM that are typically the last of the day, if there aren't any midnight screenings. While this intense thriller is certainly chilling enough to qualify as a "midnight movie," it isn't nearly as gory, with the unusual start time a perfect metaphor for the film itself, since it, like its unusual start time, is definitely outside the proverbial box.
Like all of Night's films, Split is set in Philadelphia, starting off at a seemingly innocuous teenager's birthday party. With the party wrapping up, one of the girls, Casey (The Witch breakout star Anya Taylor-Joy), still doesn't have a ride home, so she ends up catching a ride with the birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). Before they can leave the parking lot, their lives are upended when a deranged man named Kevin (James McAvoy) presumably kills Claire's father and kidnaps all three girls. While it seems like other people are interacting with Kevin on the other side of their locked door, the girls eventually discover that they are all the vastly different personalities that reside within Kevin, 23 of them, to be exact.
When Kevin is not looking after his captives, one of the more affable personalities goes to have sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is trying to prove to the scientific community that people with this mental illness, may hold the key to unlocking other breakthroughs, since some of the personalities have abilities that go beyond the capabilities of the host's physical body. Naturally, Dr. Fletcher is unaware that some of these personalities have gone rogue, so to speak, and kidnapped these girls, as they prepare for the 24th and final personality to arrive, "The Beast."
James McAvoy's performance is truly impressive, inhabiting a slew of distinct characters all under the same cinematic roof. These characters can range from a wide-eyed child with a lisp, who we've seen in the first trailers to a female task-master to the brains behind this whole operation, not to mention The Beast himself. While all might not be seen on screen as much as others, they are all incredibly distinct, and I have the utmost respect and praise for James McAvoy for being able to pull of this mammoth acting feat. Anya Taylor-Joy also proves that she is one of the most talented newcomers out there, with a bold performance as Claire, who uses her wits to try and get out of this creepy facility alive. I won't spoil it for you, but make sure you stay for a wonderful post-credits scene that the AFI Fest crowd certainly enjoyed.
One of the problems I had with Split is that, at 116 minutes in length, it's not nearly as "lean and mean," so to speak, as The Visit. While I completely understand that it's a much more complex story than The Visit, it does get a bit convoluted in the film's second act. Split certainly isn't the first film to tackle dissociative identity disorder, with iconic characters such as Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs and even Psycho's Norman Bates suffering from this disease. James McAvoy's Kevin certainly won't be the last character with multiple personalities, but it may be one of the most ambitious performances in this milieu to date