Split is the kind of movie that would have made M. Night Shyamalan the kind of name director he always wanted to be, if it weren’t for truly unfortunate timing, self-delusion, and poor decision making. Funny enough, these tend to be the exact strengths of Split, Shyamalan’s latest offering, that goes back to the more familiar “almost horror but not quite” genre of filmmaking he first popularized himself with. If there’s an emerging theme of identity, grandiosity, and personal recognition sprinkled throughout his work, it’s layered on thick and heavy in this film of his, which bills itself as a typical kidnapping/torture/psychological horror flick, and only grows from there. However, instead of negatively affecting his film, the unfortunate timing here is for the 3 main female characters, those who become the victims of James McAvoy’s villain by poor luck-of-the-draw chance. The self-delusion is no longer behind the camera, but inside the head of the villain himself, as he begins to inform the girls of the purpose behind their abduction. And the poor decision making so prevalent in most horror movies, especially kidnapping/home invasion style films, is thankfully lacking here. It would almost give the impression that perhaps, yes, finally Shyamalan has learned from a lot of his mistakes in the past, and is making strides towards improvement and redemption here.
As far as it goes for those burned by Shyamalan’s previous ventures, there’s a certain degree of understandable reticence one may have before enthusiastically approaching this film, especially given its tainted pedigree. Those of us who loved his earlier works like Signs, or Unbreakable, will certainly be more rewarded by the return to stylistic form. It’s also a return in terms of story choice, which is remarkably evident here, and becomes the fulcrum which supports the whole film’s presence and its admittedly weary suspension of disbelief. That is to say the plot follows the typical trappings of many films we’ve seen before, where a group of young women are horrifically victimized and tortured/kidnapped/imprisoned or worse, and instead of giving us something that’d be comfortable amongst its brethren of cookie cutter kidnap/torture-porn films, gives us something we didn’t even know we wanted, which is always the best kind of surprise.
Of course, that’s just a fancy way of saying that yes, like other Shyamalan films, there is a “twist” of sorts but to ruin it would be doing the film itself a disservice. In a lot of ways it’s intention is to sort of parallel the modern business models of interconnected film universes, but to expand on that more goes deep into spoiler territory, and let it be known this is one of the few times where a film deserves to not be spoiled, as its follow-through with plot escalation is rare in Shyamalan’s oeuvre, let alone most modern psychological horror films to begin with. In a movie all about split personalities, Shyamalan also manages to redeem himself through the subtext of his work, showing us a side of himself we’d all like to see more of, that we’d caught glimpses of in the past. Kevin, as played by James McAvoy, is a pure delight to watch onscreen, and his performance carries a lot of scenes and dialogue that in lesser talented hands could fall flat. His hilarious-at-times, creepy-at-others-style of performance anchors everything about the movie, and through the wheelhouse of personalities we see in the film, he gives genuine pathos and a modicum of depth to each one for the short amount of time we see them. Shyamalan’s choice of casting here was inspired, namely Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch, Morgan), as was the wardrobe and production design, which isn’t often something I notice about a film, but McAvoy’s performance here highlights so many other excellent parts of the film, that it’s all worth noticing and worth giving credit to where it’s due.
Shyamalan has improved here demonstrably, both in scriptwriting (these kidnapped girls are smart, resourceful, and believable as hell), as well as on set, improving his camera placement and shot composition greatly. There’s a lot of visual storytelling in this film, which isn’t something that often accompanies psychological thrillers, and definitely isn’t something I’d expect from the guy who made last year’s The Visit, a film with a twist so lousy it undermined its own story from the beginning, and only made it worse. Like every good movie with a great ending however, Split manages to capture that impossible lightning in a bottle of “Good twist that actually enhances the film”, that Shyamalan has been chasing his whole career since The Sixth Sense. It looks like maybe he’s finally caught it, and for this film at least, his frantic, hurried chugging of that bottle has resulted in lightning on celluloid, and for that, he should be proud.
Film Grade: A
Split opened to wide release in the US today.
Images: Universal Pictures