M Night Shyamalan's best movie Split is available to stream on Apple TV.
Knock at the Cabin was filmmaker M Night Shyamalan’s 15th movie and was applauded by critics for both the grim intensity of its apocalyptic premise and Dave Bautista’s revelatory performance as a remorseful but relentless prophet of the end times. However, if you want to see M Night Shyamalan’s best movie, look no further than his controversial 2016 psychological thriller Split, which is available to stream from Apple TV. The James McAvoy-starring film stands as the director’s meanest, most brutal, and yet somehow tender and human of all his movies.
Split stars James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with a highly fictionalized version of dissociative identity disorder that causes him to have 23 individual personalities within himself that all wish to take over his body (or, as they put it, “the light”). However, we only see Kevin himself for a few brief moments in the film; instead, we see the X-Men actor portray a shocking number of other people that live within the man. Of course, this being an M Night Shyamalan movie, there is a twist.
The movie begins with Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy) attending the birthday party of a schoolmate (outside Philadelphia, because this is an M Night Shyamalan movie). It is immediately clear that while Taylor-Joy has been invited, Marcia and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson of The White Lotus) are not her friends and are put off by her withdrawn nature. As the trio gets into a car to go home, a strange man gets in the driver’s seat and that is when things really kick off.
The personality that kidnaps the girls is Dennis, a quietly intimidating, soft-spoken man who seems to act as an enforcer for “the Horde,” a group of personalities who worship “the Beast.” In true horror movie fashion, the arrival of the Beast is played up for the majority of the movie as some kind of dark demi-god that the others hold in awe and fear.
Over the course of the movie, we see James McAvoy as Dennis, a fashion designer named Barry S., the stern Ms. Patricia, a nine-year-old named Hedwig, and several more. Many mental health professionals criticized Split upon release for dramatizing (and potentially stigmatizing) a condition, but it must be admitted that McAvoy truly brings his all to each performance. The responsibility that artists have to real-life issues is a murky area, and Split is no different.
But this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, so is there going to be some twist?
Not exactly. As we have opined before, the true power of an M Night Shyamalan movie is not in the much-ballyhooed twists, but in the emotional power and human connection that he always highlights. While Split was marketed as basically being “James McAvoy is all these people and he’s going to kill some girls!” the movie is more complex than that. While the movie may have the central hook of a man who has 23 separate personalities within him (plus the Beast), it is really about the desire we all have to try to reach out and be understood by someone else.
Anya Taylor-Joy is as much of a lead as McAvoy is in Split, displaying the wounded intensity that she has since brought to movies as disparate as The Menu and The Northman. Over the course of the movie, her character is revealed to have more in common with Kevin than either would have expected; it is a remarkable trick that M Night Shyamalan and Taylor-Joy pull off to convincingly portray Casey as both deeply terrified of what she is seeing and able to see the pain that Kevin is in.
Split was something of a comeback for M Night Shyamalan, after his Icarus-like fall from the heights of Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable to the depths of Mark Wahlberg in The Happening and Will Smith’s After Earth. In order to make it (and the 2015 found-footage horror film The Visit), Shyamalan self-financed the movie, mortgaging his home to give himself a sense of personal risk that he felt was necessary to bring his work back to the standard it once had. Fortunately for him (and his fans), you can check out Apple TV to find out for yourself if it worked.