We long misunderstood M Night Shyamalan, and I think he did as well. Following The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable we thought that Shyamalan’s thing was what dopes today call “elevated genre,” ie, genre movies that you can take seriously. He wrapped ghost and superhero stories in a serious patina, lending them some credibility. But it turns out that isn’t actually Shyamalan’s true strength, as he proved in the underrated classic The Happening. M. Night Shyamalan is actually a schlockmeister through and through. And now that he’s embraced it his movies have gotten good again.
The Visit, last year’s found footage film, was Shyamalan finding his level. I really enjoyed that movie, and I really enjoyed the energy that the filmmaker brought to this kind of schlock. Now he’s back with another totally schlocky movie, and while Split isn’t as fully successful as The Visit, the movie offers its own over the top, exploitative pleasures.
The plot: a trio of girls are kidnapped by a madman and locked in a room in a basement. It slowly becomes clear that this madman has multiple personalities, and that some of them are at war with each other. A small collection of the personalities - a pervert with OCD, a British woman, and a young boy - are making plans to welcome a new personality to the group, The Beast, a hyper-evolved being that eats flesh. Meanwhile the madman’s psychiatrist slowly comes to realize there’s something weird(er) going on with her patient and starts investigating as the personalities prepare the girls to become sacred food.
There are many elements of Split that are fairly tired tropes, but Shyamalan tends to have fun with them. Yes, we’ve seen girls locked in basements a hundred times, but Shyamalan presents a world where the girls have seen those movies too, and they’re very active in working to escape. Yes, we’ve seen the shrink trying to stop the patient before he does something terrible, but Shyamalan makes this version of Dr. Loomis caring and sweet.
On top of that Shyamalan is a truly gifted filmmaker, and many of his set pieces in this film are excellent. While he seems to run out of steam as the movie goes along Shyamalan still has an expert’s eye for pacing and tension, and he rarely (never, if I recall properly) relies on jump scares to get you. He has the control of a man whose skillset is at the highest level, and there are some actually extraordinary shots in the course of the film.
His secret weapon is James McAvoy as the madman. His name is Kevin but we almost never meet that guy; instead we’re introduced to a parade of personalities that give McAvoy the opportunity to really ham it up and go broad when necessary. It’s a really committed and brave performance, the kind where the actor simply had to trust that the director wasn’t going to make him look stupid. Shyamalan serves his star well, and McAvoy takes advantage of the opportunity to truly go wild. There were moments that reminded me of Shatner taking it well past the edge in the original Star Trek episode The Enemy Within, forever immortalized in .gif form.
That said, McAvoy does some nice work. If you think acting is judged by how much of it you do, he delivers the best performance of the millennium, but if you’re pickier about your praise you’ll possibly enjoy the hamminess he brings, as well as the smaller moments where he tells us which personality we’re watching by doing something as simple as tilting his head. I like that McAvoy runs the gamut here, sometimes (rarely) being interior while mostly just exploding like a thousand roman candles all aimed at the camera.
Betty Buckley plays the psychiatrist, and she brings a warmth that the movie desperately needs. The tone here is arch, but Buckley’s caring doctor gives us an emotional center we require, as well as existing to spout off all the semi-scientific stuff about Dissociative Identity Disorder you can stomach. I like how Shyamalan wrote this character, making her sweet but not naive.
The third lead is Ana Taylor-Joy as Casey, the glum gothy girl that the madman didn’t intend to abduct. She’s the fly in the ointment, which is why it’s disappointing that her story is so profoundly underserved and Taylor-Joy is given so little to do except look sad and engage in some typical Final Girl action. There are flashbacks to Casey’s past where we slowly learn about her childhood (and possibly ongoing) sexual abuse, and this is the storyline that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, especially as Shyamalan makes a bizarre and infuriating choice with how he ends it - a choice that is absolutely tonally wrong for this kind of schlock movie.
Some people will have problems with the idea of DID being presented in this way - it gets pretty paranormal as things go on - but it’s that sexual abuse storyline that stuck out to me. Shyamalan is using it as cheap shorthand, and while the flashbacks themselves are both tasteful and tense, they end up feeling exploitative in the absolute wrong way. I like that Shyamalan has decided to get a little edgy with the mental health stuff - it wouldn’t be proper schlock without being sorta offensive - but I think he drops the ball.
Which is how I ended up feeling about the entire movie, which starts strong and slowly deflates as it goes. The final act is too standard for what he’s been up to so far, and I think he makes a lot of narrative choices to service a last minute reveal, one that recontextualizes the movie but also undercuts it. I won’t get into any more detail about it, even though I think the studio wants it spoiled to generate interest for the release of the film, but it feels like an example of backwards thinking that offers a quick moment of excitement followed by a realization that the reveal takes the wind out of the movie’s sails.
Split is fun schlock until it runs out of energy and ideas, and I liked it well enough. This is where Shyamalan belongs, making lower budgeted movies that are scrappy and weird, not tackling prestige pictures or huge blockbusters. He has a real sense of what will please a crowd and he seems to be able to make it work on these smaller, more contained stories in a way he couldn’t on the big ones. He’s right at home at Blumhouse. Right until the ending Split is a very well made movie at a slightly higher than direct to video level... right until that ending. You'll find out what I mean in January.