As her birthday party winds down, Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson, "The Edge of Seventeen") observes that Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy, "The Witch") is still there and tells her dad (Neal Huff, "Spotlight") that this is what happens with a 'mercy' invite. Casey is always running away from home, yelling at teachers and is a loner, Claire explains, but her dad offers to drive Casey home along with Claire's friend Marcia (Jessica Sula). But when a stranger (James McAvoy) gets into the car instead of Claire's dad, it's Casey who goes on immediate alert and when the trio awaken in a basement bunker and are visited by Dennis, Patricia and the nine year-old Hedwig, it is Casey who recognizes that their abductor's personality is "Split."
For over a decade, once hot writer/director M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense") seemed to have lost his path, delivering one disappointing movie after the next. In 2015, he had a moderate comeback with his low budget Indie "The Visit." Now, returning to his beloved Philadelphia, the Shyamalan comeback is solidified with a suspenseful thriller that also sees the filmmaker expanding upon his own cinematic mythmaking.
You may not recognize Philadelphia until Shyamalan reveals just where that basement, clearly part of some institutional building, is located. Until then he sticks with three locations. In the basement, Claire is taking a fight with might stance, but Casey prevails when the other two watch her careful engagement with the lisping Hedwig, a bright young boy who is on Dennis and Patricia's 'side' of the alters. Claire and Marcia try to escape, only to be caught and placed in separate rooms. Meanwhile we see alter Barry, the fey fashion designer who visits Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley, "Carrie," "The Happening"). She's becoming concerned about the increasing amount of desperate sounding emails requesting unscheduled sessions and isn't at all sure it's Barry who is actually present. Fletcher is a name in the Dissociative Identity Disorder treatment field, believing that these sufferers may have found the true potential of the human brain, citing cases where one alter may suffer from a medical condition the others do not have. Barry's comments about 'the beast' being 'on the move' has raised a flag with Fletcher, who has sensed a conflict among the alters. The third location we see is in Casey's flashbacks to a hunting trip with her dad (Sebastian Arcelus, TV's 'House of Cards,' 'Madam Secretary') and Uncle John (Brad William Henke, "Fury"), the latter emitting a dangerous vibe that will tie in to Kevin Wendell Crumb's (McAvoy's actual persona) own youthful experience (young Izzie Leigh Coffey plays the five year-old Casey) .
Shyamalan's themes of good and evil, spirituality, otherness and people not being what they seem are apparently augmented by the works of novelist Thomas Harris, whose 'Red Dragon' dealt with transformation and whose 'Silence of the Lambs' featured a seamstress serial killer in a multi-roomed basement. Production designer Mara LePere-Schloop ("Elvis & Nixon") doesn't go for those film adaptations' creepy vibes, though, instead creating environments that define character. It's Shyamalan and his cinematographer Mike Gioulakis ("It Follows") who create chills with composition and blocking. The abduction itself is suggested by Casey's glances into a rear view mirror. We first meet Patricia via the girls' partial sight line, creating a shocking and funny full exposure. Characters are frequently centered in the frame in a confessional pose.
"Split's" biggest asset is James McAvoy, the Scottish actor having a field day with Dissociative Identity Disorder, portraying 8 or 9 of his character's 24 alters, often within the same scene (in one scant minute or so near the end McAvoy runs through them all in a jaw dropping display). Hedwig's dance for Corey is a hilarious, physical marvel, all his alters differing in physicality as much as voice. Buckley creates a compassionate professional carefully stepping through the minefield of her client's mind. Her loneliness is in distinct contrast to Kevin's crowded existence, just as Taylor-Joy's wary thoughtfulness is the opposite of Richardson's outgoing, action-oriented Claire. As he often does, Shyamalan has cast himself in the small role of Jai, a Hooters' wing-loving researcher consulted by Fletcher.
Shyamalan's known for his twist endings, but "Split" has more of a twist stinger, although you don't have to sit through the entire closing credits to see it. With a surprise cameo appearance, "Split" is tied back to one of his earlier films in a way that suggests we may be seeing more of Kevin Wendell Crumb. Count me in.
*Usually when I review a blu-ray for a film that's already been reviewed for its theatrical release, it is to explore the disk's extras as well as to comment upon the film's transfer. Well this time it will include a mea culpa. Upon a second viewing of the film, informed with what Shyamalan reveals at the end, I found it an altogether richer experience. Shyamalan's script has more depth than I'd originally perceived, linking it back to the film which I consider his best (as West Dylan Thordson's score also does, something I missed the first time around having only recently revisited that earlier film). Therefore "Split" is getting a grade upgrade to a B+.
The blu-ray is stuffed with extras. While Shyamalan does not do a commentary track, he does introduce each of the deleted scenes, giving his reasoning for writing them as well as his rationale for cutting them. There are three great scenes between Buckley and Sterling K. Brown (TV's 'This Is Us'), a character cut because his scenes didn't advance the plot, but whose personal/professional dynamic with Dr. Fletcher enriches her character. Other scenes include Casey's isolation at the film's beginning, Hedwig playing games and a flashback of the young Casey. Note that the disk defaults to turning Shyamalan's introductons *off*, a questionable decision as some of these scenes would have far less impact without his insights. The filmmaker also explains his decision to rewrite his ending, the alternate one we see chilling. 'The Making of Split' sees Shyamalan defending his career slump, stating that fatherhood drew him towards making films for children. The most interesting interviewee is production designer Mara LePere-Schloop, who explains how Kevin's multiple personalities were infused into his surroundings without revealing the film's surprises. 'The Many Faces of James McAvoy' discusses the actor finding his way into each of his personalities before devolving into Shyamalan once again discussing the question he asked himself regarding DID that led to "Split."
Robin gives "Split" on blu-ray a B.
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