Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
WARNING: This review may contain Shyamalan-esque spoilers
Before writer-director M. Night Shyamalan became the proverbial whipping boy for career suicide, he was an Oscar-nominated golden child whose work was being compared to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. Such lofty references aside, it's easy to forget that at one point in time, M. Night was unleashing his personal brand of low key character drama with supernatural elements to both critical and commercial acclaim. Whether or not he deserved such praise is debatable (other than The Sixth Sense, his filmography is incredibly spotty), there's little question that his epic rise and calamitous fall was the stuff of Tinseltown legend. After a string of box office failures making big budget studio pictures, it seemed Shyamalan's career had finally sputtered beyond resuscitation. Disasters like The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth were especially revealing in regards to the prevailing notion that the man was a hack all along, with The Sixth Sense emerging as an exception to the rule.
The notion of a Shyamalan comeback story began to take root once he teamed up with low budget horror producer Jason Blum and 2015's The Visit was birthed; a mediocre found footage effort which nonetheless was commercially and critically successful enough to signal multiple "return to form" pull quotes. With Split, the Shyamalan/Blum collaboration comes full circle with the filmmaker's most fully realized work in well over a decade; a back to basics genre thriller that toys with audience expectations in tantalizing ways. For better or worse, this is the most purely Shyamalan effort since The Village; with the director showcasing his formal control over camera movement, composition, and plotting in a way we just don't see anymore in the low budget horror/thriller genre.
Of course, since this is the most idiosyncratic film Shyamalan has made in quite some time, his typical weaknesses are also on full display. While Split is incredibly well directed from an aesthetic standpoint, Shyamalan's shakiness as a writer of dialogue is also keenly felt throughout. Like all of his work (aside from The Sixth Sense), Shyamalan couches human interactions in either solemn psychobabble or expository monologues, giving his characters an almost cartoonish quality which often comes back to haunt him when everything is taken so seriously. Fortunately, though Split does present its pseudoscience angle with a measure of ponderousness, overall the film operates on a level of goofy genre pastiche which soars on the strength of directorial ingenuity and strong performances.
The basic plot involves three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Jessica Sula, and Haley Lu richardson, respectively) who are kidnapped by Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with dissociative disorder representing 23 different personalities, with a possible 24th on the way. Locking them inside an underground bunker while moving through the various personalities--a somber academic, a stern older woman, a flamboyant fashion designer, a naive nine-year old boy, etc--Kevin emerges as someone with a tragic past who must confront each of the voices inside his head. In terms of plotting, Shyamalan cuts between scenes of the young girl's attempting to escape Kevin's lair with moments where he visits his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), a woman with some very odd theories about his condition.
What ultimately sells Split as more than simply another women in peril thriller even as Shyamalan's script trips over its own feet with its laughable understanding of mental illness, is the filmmaker's clear love of actors. McAvoy is obviously having a blast in the central role; displaying a wide range of vocal inflections, mugging facial expressions, and physical tics that could be considered over-ripe if the film itself wasn't tilting toward camp to begin with. Additionally, Anya Taylor-Joy gives an intensely controlled, empathetic performance as a young outcast who, like McAvoy's lunatic, also has scars both physical and emotional. That these scars literally save her during the film's enjoyably off-the-rails final act does feel like a bit of a narrative cheat, and yet, we are still light years from the "swing away" third act nonsense of Signs.
After all of this time, one would think Shyamalan would improve on some of his more annoying traits as a writer, but truthfully, his shortcomings do offer a way of reading into a thematic worldview present in all of his most personal stories; that trauma and suffering gives people the ability to transcend and overcome. This is never more apparent than in the final moments of Split, which tries to recontextualize the entire experience as part of a larger connected universe. If the masterful opening where the three girls are abducted in a parking lot shows Shyamalan utilizing brilliant framing, tight editing, and almost no dialogue in order to hold the audience in rapt suspense, the final scene plays as a kind of self-satisfied embrace of his own mythos as a storyteller. In a sense, the last "twist" isn't really a twist at all, but rather, another indication of a filmmaker unable to let go of his past glories. In essence, Shyamalan ends up "out-Shyamalaning" himself, which is disappointing given how well Split gooses the audience through long takes, immaculate cinematography, and McAvoy's scenery-chewing gusto.