M. Night Shyamalan has had, to put it lightly, a tumultuous career. He went from box office darling to pariah over the course of just a few years. He took all the good will from The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, and absolutely obliterated it with convoluted films like Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. Its unheard of for a director to put out such sporadic filmography in such a short career. Last year Shyamalan covertly released The Visit, a critically well-received film that also impressed audiences. This year he was at the forefront of the marketing for Split. The film looked great, but was Shyamalan really in the middle of a career resurgence? Or was The Visit a fleeting hit? Turns out, Split is proof that Shyamalan has once again found his stride.
Split is a wonderfully creepy movie. It’s over the top, yet grounded. It’s unsettling, but not quite horror. It’s methodical, but not overlong. Split is a film that required M. Night Shyamalan to have, ironically, a unique and unified vision. One step too far into overacting makes the film ridiculous and idiotic. Too far into horror, and we would lose the focus on Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), the main character. If this movie was made eight years ago by someone else, it would have been another schlocky ‘torture porn’ horror film. Luckily with time and the right director, it becomes something much more original.
That’s not to say that Split is completely original. Guessing general plot points won’t be difficult for audiences. Typically this would cause me to glance at my watch, impatiently waiting for the credits to roll. However, there are several elements of Split that are so unique and intriguing that it elevates the film, making it feel fresh despite its predictability.
James McAvoy delivers a phenomenal performance as the deeply troubled Kevin with 23 completely separate personalities.To see such an incredible performance during a Shyamalan movie was completely unexpected. While McAvoy doesn’t get to use every one of Kevin’s 23 personalities, he does get to spend the bulk of the time as four different characters. He brings a unique physicality and grace to each performance, that the audience can read what personality he is at a glance. It’s so impressive that I genuinely believe he should get an Oscar nomination for his performance. Now I don’t know if he should win an Oscar, but watching him transfer from character to character all without the camera cutting away from his face certainly makes a case for a nomination. It’s so impressive that I would recommend this film to anyone just on his performance. From Hedwig, a 9-year-old personality, to Dennis, a personality with OCD, Macavoy nails them all with flawless precision.
It’s not just McAvoy's that carries the film however. Casey, is the opposite of the female horror victim archetype. Casey doesn’t scream and shout, she doesn’t react at all. She sits there, as her typical horror trope roommates scream and yell, methodically meditating on the situation. Rather than throw a punch, she looks for an opening and carefully proceeds. She’s intelligent and troubled, but far from the female horror archetype. From the get-go, she’s more interesting than any of her compatriots. She doesn’t lose her cool when confronted with danger. Instead, she carefully analyzes every situation, and makes cold, logical choices.
Now I know the selling point, at least initially, was that any film directed by M. Night Shyamalan had a jaw-dropping twist at some point in the film. This worked for a couple movies, but his films became hamstrung under the weight of delivering increasingly implausible finales. Don’t worry about that with Split. Yes, there is something of a twist...but it’s inconsequential in terms of the story being told. This ‘twist’ feels more like a lead into a sequel, so don’t waste your time dissecting the movie, only to be disappointed that he twist wasn’t within the meat of the movie. The so-called twist is minor, inconsequential, it’s in the credits, and it’s amazing for those that get it.
Split is a film with a unified vision and a return-to-form by the once maligned Shyamalan. The film that is split (heh) between the two excellently crafted characters, whose actors give such great performances that the film would have been an easy recommendation on this alone. Luckily Shyamalan was able to craft an engaging albeit predictable story that would keep the audience on the edge of their seat. This is the spark his career needed. It’s a step back towards the spotlight; let’s just hope he doesn’t trip on the way there.