|Scene from Split|
It must be hard sometimes to be M. Night Shyamalan. Following the success of The Sixth Sense, he became billed as the next Spielberg, whose work would revitalize the blockbuster genre with engaging stories with smart and intricate twists. In the years since, he has produced great work, but has been accused of diminishing returns, making his name into more of a punchline than one that inspire brilliance. With his 12th film, he pulls quite possibly the greatest twist of all: a rip-roaring, sometimes insane, genre movie that plays to all of his strengths. Even if Split is far from the meticulous masterpiece of Shyamalan's heyday, it is an amazing film that more than shows that maybe the director should stick to mid-budget horror, where he's allowed to be profane as well as inspired. He may have never left, but this is the first genuine comeback film we've been waiting for in well over a decade.
The suspense for Split starts before the first scene even finishes. Three teenage girls are leaving a party. As the father places things into the trunk, one of them looks in the side mirror to see the action. To the audience, there is nothing. There is no sound of distress nor any shadows of action. It isn't entirely clear what lead to the plot's catalyst in which Kevin (James McAvoy) abduct them, but it only plays into the tension as Shyamalan creates more of an allusion to the cruelty off screen. What happened to the father figure? Who is this man? The film does an excellent job of hiding the truth, only allowing it to come out piecemeal as the story progresses. Still, even as the inspired title sequence happens, there's a sense that even if this doesn't have the biggest production design, it has everything that is needed to make a genuinely horrifying experience.
It helps that McAvoy is giving a performance that is full of inspired choices. Kevin is a figure who claims to have 23 personalities, all of which fight for attention. Even if Shyamalan chooses to focus on only half of them, he gives them all a fair shake by giving each one a showcase scene. McAvoy manages to be a one man version of Cloud Atlas, embodying every small tick that comes with these personalities Most of them are subtle shifts, but leaves a sense of commitment that makes it easy to fall into this heightened world. Whether he's playing a young boy, a clean freak, or a patient female figure; McAvoy gives what is probably his best performance by not so much chewing the scenery as he does consume it like a wood chipper.
On the other side of the fence is Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy); a woman abducted who is doing her best to get out of the situation alive. Her demented past comes to the surface through flashbacks meant to highlight her strengths in the "fight or flight" behavior. She holds her own, managing to face some of Shyamalan's most demented set pieces in years. The only conflict really is that the director plays into the schlock factor, choosing to allow Kevin's perversions to play into exploitative women in peril tropes, including stripping women of their dirty clothes. While the eventual reason comes through in a logical sense, Shyamalan cannot help but play into the trashy side, which both makes Kevin more of an intimidating presence as well as one of the most one note villains in recent horror. Had it not been for McAvoy, this all would be seen more as a negative.
There's plenty to suggest that this is Shyamalan's attempt at returning to the status of auteur. Along with the patented twists (which work this time), the sound design adds simple cues as Kevin changes personalities. The misdirection constantly throws the viewer into a state of dread. Even the film's whole existence gets a third act shakedown that almost justifies its sloppier elements. This may be far from the brilliance of The Sixth Sense, but Split manages to be the pulpy fun film that Shyamalan should've been making all along. It never takes itself too seriously, instead allowing the film to run through the entire emotional spectrum while never having a story beat that feels obvious in a bad way. It may be a hat trick - especially given how little quality work he's done in recent years - but it's nice to know that there's too much to this story that will likely go ignored on a first watch. Split is a film demanding to be critiqued after a few times. What does it all mean?
Shyamalan may have a ways to go before he earns the praise he received in the few years following The Sixth Sense. With that said, Split is an example of his brilliance behind the camera and his ability to scare the pants off of the viewer in unexpected ways. Even if this is about as good as the latter day director can do, it's still a great place to be. Sadly, McAvoy's performance will likely go unnoticed simply by being a January release. However, it helps to elevate this pulpy schlock to the work of endearing and disturbing fiction. One can only hope that Shyamalan still has this spirit in him now that he is working on a level that suits him. It would be so much more tolerable than a sequel to The Last Airbender.