Dir.: M. Night Shyamalan
By the time M. Night Shyamalan released low budget horror comedy The Visit into theaters, his reputation as a Spielberg protégé stemming from his mainstream smash hit The Sixth Sense had long waned. Fortunately, that particular film was the first arguably decent cinematic effort from the director in years, as his career had taken a drastic critical and commercial downturn. With his follow-up film Split–a psychological thriller about a young man affected with Dissociative Identity Disorder who kidnaps young girls and holds them prisoner–Shyamalan shows that his recent upswing is indeed not a fluke, and that he is still capable of directing and delivering great, entertaining films. While I’m hesitant to proclaim a Shaymalanniassance yet, this film works both as a redemption story for the shunned Hollywood director and as a standalone psychological thriller with a compelling villain and well-written characters.
Split uses its main antagonist’s disorder to great effect. Though the trailer markets this film as a standard B-movie kidnapping film, in reality each personality in the kidnapper’s body has its own agenda. James McAvoy gives a career-best performance as each separate personality, switching between roles on the fly and giving each one subtle, nuanced traits. His skill as an actor even allows the audience to be clued in as to when he switches personalities. There are even scenes in which one personality impersonates another. Last year's horror masterpiece The Witch jump-started the career of Anya-Taylor Joy, who also gives a remarkable performance here as a character who is far from your standard “horror girl". Though some of her backstory seems questionable and a bit rockily handled, her performance gives the role weight and sufficient sympathy. She makes it easy to root for her as she tries to survive. Finally, Betty Buckley’s performance as Dr. Karen Fletcher adds some surprising extra character development for McAvoy’s antagonist, as she explains some much-welcome context behind his illness and DID in general. These three performances are all remarkable, and they elevate a screenplay that could have felt generic or otherwise inferior.
Split does wear some influences on its sleeve, but the films it takes inspiration from are commendable. The plot structure and some of the narrative developments that occur in this film feel extremely similar to last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (which I included in my 2016 top-20 list), even down to the unstable antagonist portrayal from a renowned actor. But this film does a good job of feeling much more cerebral and intimately developed. Additionally, M. Night recruited the cinematographer that shot It Follows for this film, Mike Gioulakis, and the camerawork feels appropriately confined and tense as a result. The bass-laden score also helps to add tension in the right moments, punctuating the more violent and horrific scenes. The technical filmmaking on display in this film makes the narrative feel far more fresh than it could have been in the hands of a less experienced director, and this is Shymalan’s most technically splendid film since Signs. Not only does the technical prowess help accentuate his directing style; the narrative material also benefits from his forte: that of the psychological thriller.
The film does try to provide a sufficient backstory for both its protagonist and antagonist, even if the explanations that Shyamalan provides occasionally feel lackluster and hamfisted. Some of the scenes with Anya-Taylor Joy’s character feel like they could have been cut out of the film entirely, and the film tries to justify her character’s backstory with a climactic scene, only to have that scene feel like an ultimate cop out. Additionally, some of the DID knowledge taken from what should be the field of abnormal psychology feels a little bit too science fiction to be as grounded as some of the other more nuanced bits of story. The third act feels a lot less cohesive than the rest of the film, and it peters out after the climax. It’s a shame because McAvoy hams it up sufficiently as all of the different personalities throughout the course of the film, so the escalation toward the end feels earned thanks to his dedicated performance, even if the rest of the narrative does not provide enough heft to support his delivery.
Shyamalan’s career has been a wild roller coaster with soaring highs and bleak lows, but Split presents solid proof that the director is still capable of putting out quality films. Since this film feels right in his forte, it thrives, and with an expert cast intent on delivering quality performances and a cinematographer who accentuates the very best of Shyamalan’s style, this is definitely one of the most entertaining January films I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in quite some time. The director may not ever live up to the critical praise and cult following he had enjoyed by his first three films, but if Split is any indication, Shyamalan’s creative juices have been renewed, and fans of the director have a lot to look forward to. Even if you’re not a fan of the director himself, but simply enjoy a solid psychological thriller, I believe that this film is well worth the price of a ticket. When it comes to the reception of this film, audiences don’t seem to be split: it’s a dang good movie.