2017 | rated PG-13 | starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley | directed by M. Night Shyamalan | 1hr 57mins |
Studio-Pitch: A group of girls is kidnapped and held hostage by a man with dissociative identity disorder and attempt to navigate his differing personalities to get free.
Let’s not relitigate M. Night Shyamalan’s tumultuous, rollercoaster of a career right here – that would take all day. Suffice to say it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker working today who has gone from being insanely overrated, heralded as “the next Hitchcock” in fact, to falling so far that trailers provoked boos from the crowd at the mention of his name. Still, he toiled away, trying to reinvent himself with each new attempt. His first R-rated movie, his first adaptation and finally striking a minor victory with last year’s found footage The Visit. Now, working with a small budget but a high concept idea, Shyamalan makes his best movie in over a decade, not with a new gimmick or style, but by returning to the spirit of his early successes. Split feels more like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs than anything the bumbling autuer has made recently. Whatever the inspiration, Shyamalan is simply firing on all cylinders here.
His movies are usually absurd, but Shyamalan has rarely had an actor follow him down the rabbit hole of insanity quite like James McAvoy does here. The two work beautifully together. The director tees him up with a uniquely wild acting challenge of playing a serial killer and his 23 personalities (including an elderly English lady, a fashion designer and an 8-year-old boy who innocently bonds with the kidnapped girls) and McAvoy has a blast with it, playing to the hilt every scenery-chewing moment. He is menacing and adorable, victim and perpetrator as he bounces back and forth while his dominant personalities fight to seize control (“grabbing the light” as the movie describes so well it becomes a visual in the mind’s eye) often in the same scene. It’s a phenomenal and kind of mesmerizing performance. It’s also a fresh and wonderfully weird take on the serial killer trope that throws the hostages completely for a loop as they look on stunned at the parade of characters that walk through their prison door. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) is particularly good as the worldly female lead whose forced survival instincts help her navigate uniquely around her captor/s.
Shyamalan the precise, moody and visually astute director often conflicts with Shyamalan the gimmicky, eager-to-please writer who writes his solutions through comic books, cereal boxes and theatrical campiness. We’ve seen these two come together like a car crash most of the time. When they are working in sync they can take an absurd premise just seriously enough to make it genuinely effective. Split works so well because it balances the tone on the head of a pin just about perfectly. It’s absurd enough to be different, self aware enough to be fun, but also gruesome enough to be menacing. Split is a shockingly hard PG-13. Given Shyamalan has a track record for working with a blank check from Touchstone pictures on relatively family-friendly films, it’s interesting to watch him lean so far into full-bodied horror. The film’s strangeness will give way to some genuinely unsettling stuff and before it’s over the body count will rise and Shyamalan will touch on pedophilia, child abuse and cannibalism. He crafts an atmosphere of dread without cheap jump scares so well it keeps the whole thing moving even when it winds into a totally bonkers third act. Even in a single-location thriller, which this is most of the time, he knows where to frame the shot and sting the music to keep things compelling but also cinematic. It’s a remind that Shyamalan the director is an absolute pro.
Shyamalan the writer still can’t get out of his own way. He casts theater and Eight is Enough actress Betty Buckley as a psychologist experienced in Dissociative Identity Disorder, dumps pages of clunky expositional monologueing on her and makes some fantastical fact-check-worthy claims about DID in order to steer his villain into comic book super-villainy. The movie has it’s share of small Shyamalanian oddities, like the director’s cameo as a Hooters wing enthusiast or the 24th personality, ominously named The Beast, climbing up a wall in a small room and then back down, I guess just to show us he can. It also wraps up on an unsatisfying note I found both a bit frustrating and admirable. As with The Sixth Sense and Signs Shyamalan grounds a fantastical story in real pain. His touch isn’t subtle, but that this movie says something at all in a world of brainless franchise films is commendable. It isn’t ground-breaking, but like almost everything else here, it’s still effective mostly because McAvoy and Taylor-Joy sell the hell out of it.
All this adds up to a totally entertaining, very weird, very well acted and unique spin on the serial killer/kidnapping film very much in the tone that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map. With so many horror films built around jump-scares or torture, Split is a wonderfully theatrical, classically creepy piece of work. A horror movie with character, but horror all the same.
I often think I enjoy foreign films so much because they’re such a surprise; and they’re a surprise because they didn’t have an American marketing campaign give away every plot point in the movie trailers. The Split ad campaign gave away way too much of the madness here. I can only imagine how much more fun this movie would have been had I been able to go in cold and really appreciate the measured way Shyamalan unpeels the film’s layers of progressive craziness. It’s designed like a spring-trap with a surprise around every corner.