Written and Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Haley Lu Richardson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"He's done awful things to people and he'll do awful things things to you."
As film fans, we tend to take journeys, with interests waxing and waning as tastes evolve. What was once a beloved, formative movie becomes kind of an embarrassment—and then, suddenly, it might become a favorite again. A lot of filmmakers have been instrumental in my own personal journey, but it occurs to me that I practically grew up with M. Night Shyamalan. In many ways, his career is a reflection of my experiences as a teen and twentysomething developing a taste in film. When The Sixth Sense hit, I was a teenager developing a sense of important "Great Films," and here was a director willing to craft a ghost story that was so good that it became a cultural phenomenon and an awards contender. It almost felt like the moment when you realized comic books could be taken seriously as graphic novels—and then of course, Shyamalan actually followed up The Sixth Sense with a serious-minded comic book movie in Unbreakable.
For that stretch up to and including Signs, Shyamalan directed exactly the types of movies I really wanted to see during that time: these were genre films, but they were treated with a rare level of respect and reverence. Looking back, there was something else about these movies that I may have underappreciated at the time: the playful sense of humor that’s just perceptible enough to keep those efforts from drowning in their own profundity. For whatever reason, I didn’t quite care about that at the time. Nor, I suspect, did Shyamalan, whose quest for complete and utter profundity eventually culminated in ill-advised semi-vanity projects like Lady in the Water and The Happening, the latter of which seemed to especially confirm that its director forgot how to have fun.
Coincidentally, it was around this time that I began to realize that fun wasn’t a dirty word—sometimes, a genre effort need not be respectable or even try to be. Sometimes, trash—especially knowing, unrepentant trash—is the best. This is what frustrated me most about Shyamalan around this time: as bizarre and as interesting as The Happening is, it’s firmly wedged up its own obvious, self-important asshole. I have to wonder if Shyamalan himself didn’t arrive at this same realization: after wandering around in the blockbuster desert for two largely anonymous outings, he went back to his roots with The Visit, a film that showed the promise of a reinvigorated director regaining his footing.
Maybe this is the type of lurid, pulp junk Shyamalan should have been making all along, and now his latest film, Split, leaves no doubt. He’s figured it out, and he’s done so with just enough of that early-career confidence that this feels like ideal levels of Shyamalan: it’s suspenseful, lurid, schlocky, probably a little tasteless, and, most importantly, intriguing without absolutely relying on its final reveal. Shyamalan wants you to know that he’s back, but he doesn’t feel compelled to rub your nose in it.
It brings me back full circle with a director that I once idolized: just as I’ve become comfortable with enjoying junk, so has he. And Split doesn’t arrive with much pretense: despite its lengthy run-time, it’s about as straightforward as any Shyamalan film to date. Within five minutes we’re introduced to our main protagonists—a group of high-school students leaving a party—before they’re swiftly abducted by a preternaturally calm maniac named Kevin (James McAvoy), who imprisons them in preparation for a cryptic ceremony involving an unseen beast. The wrinkle? Kevin’s mind houses 23 distinct personalities, all of them constantly at war with one another. With the possible exception of Kevin’s intervening psychiatrist (Betty Buckley). the girls’ only hope is their resourcefulness, particularly their ability to appeal to those personalities that might be tricked into helping them escape.
Shyamalan takes the premise is consistently mines it for all its schlock potential. By no means can it be considered even a respectful treatment of mental illness, what with its outdated approach to dissociative identity disorder and multiple personalities. However, it isn’t exactly trying to be accurate considering just how big and bold Shyamalan goes with the concept: the big idea here is that Kevin’s disorder simultaneously allows him to alter his body chemistry altogether, to the point where his final incarnation—the fearsome Beast—might even be superhuman. It’s the Tooth Fairy’s Great Red Dragon fixation literalized: Kevin might actually be becoming some unspeakable horror.
The comparison to Red Dragon feels apt in more ways than one—for much of the running time, I was reminded of the Hannibal television series, particularly one of the “Psycho of the Week” episodes. Between the superficial pop psychology, an indelible maniac, and gruesome outbursts of violence, it feels like the sort of case Will Graham might have eventually investigated once authorities discovered the grisly crime scene. However, what’s missing from the Hannibal formula is just as notable: where that show often unfolded under a thick, almost lugubrious haze, Split moves with the reckless abandon of a filmmaker looking to gleefully nudge viewers to the edge of their seats before fucking them right up.
Of course, when Shyamalan was at his best, he excelled at such manipulation. Watching those early films is to subject yourself to a master manipulator with an uncanny ability to play an audience like a violin. There’s a breathless quality to those movies that keeps a viewer just off-center, as if they were dangling over some precipice. Split has that in spades and confirms Shyamalan as a master of genuine suspense. What’s more, he never resorts to cheap jolts or loud noises to generate a scare, relying instead on authentic tension born out of the natural human drama at hand. At various points, he crafts nail-biting sequences out of seemingly mundane stuff, like a conversation between Kevin and his shrink or a girl attempting to escape a closet by rigging up a clothes hanger. Now that he’s seemingly sworn off that slavish devotion to profundity, Shyamalan is committed to appealing to the lizard part of the brain the craves trashy thrills.
Much of the effectiveness here rests in McAvoy’s delightful performance as Kevin and his horde of personalities. We actually never see much of Kevin, the traumatized boy whose troubled childhood unleashed a fractured psyche. In his place is a multitude ranging from a measured but fanatical woman (“Patricia”) to a sinister pervert (“Dennis”) to a 9-year-old boy (“Hedwig”). McAvoy acts his ass off in both obvious and subtle ways in bringing each distinct personality to life. The big, immediately observable modulations in the performance are impressive, but it’s the small tics and inflections that give the turn a devious spark.
Picking out which personality is on display adds an extra layer of intrigue and tension to the proceedings: one minute, the girls might be dealing with the harmless Hedwig, while the next has them cowering in terror from the leering Dennis. McAvoy is certainly on the same wavelength as his director here, as he’s willing to indulge the big, bold silliness of an increasingly outrageous villain, one that coaxes just the right kind of laughs. Where some of Shyamalan’s weaker work invites unintentional guffaws, Split inspires a nervous, “what the fuck am I actually seeing?” sort of chuckle. That’s exactly the sort of thing I go for lately, and McAvoy admirably shoulders so much of the films tensions and thrills. It’s fascinating just to watch him explore the unique psyche of each personality, even more so when one is attempting to cover as the other: like his psychiatrist, you’re only left to wonder just what he’s up to, meaning the film—in true Shyamalan fashion—feels like it's dangling a carrot before you at all times, luring you into its web of intrigue.
McAvoy’s supporting cast is also up to the challenge of playing off of his almost omnipresent performance. The three girls act as audience surrogates in more ways than one, with Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula particularly appealing to that basic, reflexive instinct to yell at the screen. These two represent the audience’s gut instinct: they’re the ones convinced they need to all team up and beat the shit out of this unsuspecting motherfucker. You can also imagine what happens to each of them, naturally (not that they don’t show an above-average pluckiness along the way, mind you—I do enjoy how these three use their wits to attempt an escape).
But it’s Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey who acts as the seasoned voice of reason. A disaffected goth girl whose party invite was only extended out of sympathy, Casey lays low and surveys the landscape before rushing into rash decisions. If her friends are that nagging, impulsive voice, then Casey’s the seasoned audience member who’s seen this shit before and knows exactly what type of behavior ends with your guts being splattered onto the floor. Eventually, the script crafts a backstory via flashbacks that explains her survivor’s mentality: occasionally, between hectic beats, she’ll pensively recall a traumatic childhood camping trip with her father and uncle. What begins as an innocent memory that perhaps explains her relative, almost cold-blooded calmness eventually contorts into a harrowing, uncomfortable episode detailing childhood abuse.
And while Shyamalan shoots this sordid material as tastefully as one can imagine, it adds a genuinely unseemly layer to Split. Arguably it’s at odds with the rest of it—this sort of thing obviously quite sobering, especially when it’s juxtaposed alongside the wild, trashy pulp beating at the center. However, it’s also oddly fitting that Shyamalan would lean on such gratuitously seedy stuff; having already shamelessly exploited outdated perceptions of multiple personality disorders, perhaps he figured he might as well mine child abuse in the process. Granted, it adds a dimension to Casey’s character, though it truly feels all that justified because of its weak payoff—the denouement for this particular subplot almost feels too quiet, all things considered.
There’s an argument to be made that the quiet nature Casey’s resolution is more realistic, and that’s fine—it’s just that the rest of Split is unfolding in a more unhinged reality. I suppose it’s appropriate that a film with this title would take on a bit of a schizophrenic tone, which explains how it starts out echoing Hannibal but winds up feeling like a lost X-Files episode (seriously, you can almost hear Mulder imploring Scully to explain how a normal man could suddenly crawl on walls and shake off lethal amounts of pain). Something about this feels right, though—Shyamalan has always been nothing if not a little messy in this regard, almost as if he’s always been at constant war with his inner impulses as a schlock master.
Here, you can sense him regaining his confidence as he flirts with going Full Shyamalan: there’s bits of florid dialogue, weird tics (why Shyamalan is suddenly taken to white guys rapping is beyond me, but I’ll allow it), and even an obvious cameo appearance*. He never goes all the way over the edge, though—between this and The Visit, there’s enough self-awareness that lends itself to a proper amount of restraint. Split does feel like more of a pure Shyamalan effort than that previous outing, though: if that film was a scrappy attempt at reclaiming his footing, then this one is a more confident proclamation, right down to the film’s final reveal. (Vague, mild spoilers from here on out.)
I wouldn’t dare spoil it but will only say it’s fitting that Shyamalan’s latest twist puts himself at the forefront in a sense. It’s hard to imagine a bolder declaration than the one that arrives just before the credits roll here: “I’m back,” Shyamalan might as well insist as he resurrects one of his earlier triumphs, effectively bridging that era to this new, resurgent one. Hopefully, he follows up on what’s teased here because it’d be intriguing to see him re-approach that world through his new, schlockier lens. Ironically, one of those previously profound works might actually lend itself to the rollicking, pulpy impulses Shyamalan once attempted to outrun (or “elevate,” I suppose).
In the meantime, I’m just happy that he and I are back in sync: few film developments have made me happier in recent years than Shyamalan’s reemergence, and Split confirms that it’s safe to hold out hope for his future output. His hardcore devotees will crave it, even.
*If you need solid evidence that Shyamalan isn’t taking himself too seriously anymore, just know that he credits his own character as “Jai, Hooters Lover”
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