'Split' Review

Is it too late to care about M. Night Shyamalan?

Split's twist
January 20, 2017

If you care about M. Night Shyamalan's movies and hope to avoid having his latest film spoiled for you—and its twist will be spoiled for you on Twitter or Facebook or somewhere else; it's too good not to share—then you have to see Split on its opening weekend. In fact, you should leave work or home or wherever you are and hit up a multiplex now.

But I realize that's a big ask. After all, who cares about M. Night Shyamalan movies anymore?

It's hard to think of a director who burned so brightly before spectacularly flaming out. Shyamalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, a worldwide box office smash and that rare horror film to be nominated for a best picture statue at the Oscars. What made The Sixth Sense so memorable was its surprise ending, of course. But, if you go back and watch it again, the film endures because it's beautifully put together and has a solid emotional core.

He followed up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable (2000), a movie that many, including your humble reviewer, consider to be his masterpiece. Perfectly timed to coincide with the start of the comic book movie boom—it was released a few months after X-Men and a couple of years before Spider-ManUnbreakable is the ultimate origin story movie, a flick influenced by and marinated in the comic book (rather than the comic book movie) aesthetic without feeling in anyway derivative or unoriginal.

Next came Signs (2002), a story of alien invasion and retreat that also happens to contain one of Mel Gibson's great performances. The plotting was a bit creakier here than in his previous two efforts—some of the seams show and the finale feels forced—but it's still a thrilling and memorable work, one of the few movies to really tackle the subject of faith in a compelling and honest way. And while The Village (2004) is largely unloved, considered by many to be the moment when the wheels came off the Shyamalan bus, it has its defenders (including, again, myself) who can look beyond the "what a twist!" aspect of its ending and see what it really is: a meditation on community in an increasingly unconnected world.

Four solid films in six years is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a young, unproven director. So it's odd that Shyamalan spent the next decade turning out terrible film after terrible film. Lady in the Water (2006) is unwatchable, self-indulgent dreck about the power of a storyteller (played, narcissistically, by Shyamalan himself) to save the world, while The Happening (2008) is so laughably bad it has become sort of a byword for failure, a whispered slur about the ways in which we can disappoint ourselves and others.

No one doubted that Shyamalan had a gifted eye, however, and we hoped that putting him in charge of someone else's projects might help him rediscover his groove. This theory was mistaken, as anyone who has seen The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013) will tell you; that pair of back-to-back flops would have killed most careers.

Fortunately, the low-budget horrormeister Jason Blum saw an opportunity. The head of Blumhouse Productions—home to the Paranormal Activity, Sinister, and The Purge franchises—gave Shyamalan $5 million for The Visit (2015), a found-footage, faux-documentary story about a pair of kids who visit their grandparents for the first time, only to discover that something is not quite right about the pair of oldsters. The microbudget and the artistic freedom it allowed let Shyamalan get back to doing what he does best: telling smaller stories about families in crisis in well-shot films filled with horror trappings that culminate in surprise endings.

Blum's bet paid off nicely, as the flick grossed $65 million at home and almost $100 million worldwide. I imagine he's hoping for a similar return on investment of the $5 million spent on Split, opening today.

Split stars James McAvoy as a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities. Living within a young man named Kevin are 23 different personalities, though we only really get to see a handful of them: Barry, a would-be fashion designer; Hedwig, a little boy; Dennis, a germaphobe with control issues; and Patricia, a motherly type. We get glimpses of some of the others, but little more.

It's Dennis who kidnaps Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), a trio of friends celebrating Claire's birthday at the mall. Locked in a basement with no windows and little chance of escape, it’s the preternaturally calm and empathetic Casey who stands the best chance of turning Kevin's personalities against each other before The Beast—a 24th personality believed in by Dennis and Patricia that Kevin's doctor, Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), insists does not exist—makes his appearance and feasts upon the flesh of the innocent.

This is McAvoy's film from start to finish, an actorly exercise of sorts that lets him stretch beyond the blasé confines of big-budget multiplex fare or mid-budget relationship dramas. The shifts in his accents and tones and facial tics remand Split into the realm of high camp: McAvoy's kissy faces and tut-tutting as Patricia gliding seamlessly into his lisping repetition of "et thetera" as the nine-year-old Hedwig are almost obscenely comic, given the gravity of the film's subject matter.

Split is far from a perfect movie. Fletcher is poorly fleshed out, little more than a tool to deliver exposition about multiple personality disorder and the ways the mind influences the way the body behaves. And you can tell it was filmed on the cheap. Most of the action takes place indoors on small sets, and the few special effects toward the end of the movie feel chintzy.

Yes, there's a twist, and yes, as I said, you have to see Split as soon as you possibly can so as to avoid having the surprise ruined for you. But, like the best of Shyamalan's work, it's about more than the surprises and the scares. This is a film about resilience in the face of abuse, finding strength in the wake of emotional and physical damage inflicted by those who love you. When faced with trauma, will your psyche unravel? Will you be broken, split? Or will you survive and endure?

Update: The name of one of the characters has been corrected.

Published under: Movie Reviews