Review: Split

Director: M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, The Happening, Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender)
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Producers: M. Night Shyamalan, Marc Bienstock, Jason Blum
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, M. Night Shyamalan, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Brad William Henke
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 117 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found on LetterBoxd

 


As someone who has always considered themselves a fan of M. Night Shyamalan, it’s been a hard time this past decade struggling to defend him as he pushed out one abominable piece of nonsense after another. Once a compelling and exciting director who merged twisty plotting and interesting characters with really dynamic and effective work behind the camera, the filmmaker had drunk his Kool-Aid to such an extent that he became a self-parody and it looked like there was no way he could crawl back out of the hole that he had dug himself. Even when his last picture, 2015’s found-footage The Visit, garnered some serious acclaim and plenty of boasts of a “return to form” for the director, I found myself as put off by his work as ever, so when the buzz was coming up positive for his latest, Split, I wasn’t holding my breath. Thankfully, I can finally say that I genuinely liked an M. Night Shyamalan movie again, even if Split doesn’t quite measure up to his finer earlier works. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining little piece of camp that isn’t afraid to lean into the inherent silliness of its premise, something which the horror/thriller genre could use some more of.

In recent years, this genre has become overloaded with shoestring budget features that make mad profits as a result, but in terms of quality they leave a lot to be desired, partially because they take themselves way too seriously, which only makes them look even more stupid as a result. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for horror movies that are all gloom and doom, as there certainly is and most of the best of the genre are quite serious, but for most of these movies lately they could have really done wise to inject a sense of fun into the proceedings, and Shyamalan has never been one to shy away from that awareness when it comes to the genre. It’s something that makes Split such a refreshing treat, witnessing someone who genuinely feels like he’s getting a kick out of it all, and having as much fun making the film as the audience has watching it. At the same time, while there’s a surprising amount of humor here, the director also manages to come up with some genuinely effective moments of spine-chilling terror. I’ve always said that Shyamalan is a much better director than he is a writer, and that’s on evidence again here, as even at his worst (Lady in the Water, The Happening), he can create some seriously memorable scenes that stick with you, and there are some great ones here that had me shifting in my seat without a doubt.

More than any of his other features in his career, though, Split relies heavily on the talents of its leading actor, and Shyamalan made the movie work when he cast James McAvoy for the part. Initially set to star Joaquin Phoenix, the movie got a real boon when he dropped out and was replaced by McAvoy, because as good as Phoenix always is there’s no way that he could have fit this part as well as McAvoy was able to. While the marketing for the film really oversold the concept of McAvoy playing a multitude of different roles in this story of a man with disassociative identity disorder who abducts three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) and holds them captive (the marketing hit us over the head with the fact that the character has 23 different personalities, but in actuality he spends 95% of the movie alternating between only three of them), McAvoy’s masterful performance is still the main selling point of the picture, expertly balancing all of the different shades of the film. His shift from comedy one moment to terror the next is instantaneous and pulled off without a single hitch in his step. Overall, Split isn’t quite as tense or exciting as I would have liked it to be, and I would have liked more resolution for Taylor-Joy’s character given how important the movie makes her out to be, but it remains an entertaining ride and a refreshing shift back into the right direction for a director who seemed to be lost to us.

As for Shyamalan’s trademark, his ever-present fondness for big twists, I’ll avoid spoilers for those lucky enough to still have no idea what to expect going into it (and if you haven’t been spoiled, you really will have no idea what’s coming), suffice it to say that the much-hyped one here is certainly a doozy, and fans of the director like myself will absolutely flip their lids over it when it happens (as I did), but at the same time it also raises some problems. Tonally it’s in a very different, not entirely fitting avenue than the rest of the movie. Even more than that though, it becomes such a memorable point of discussion at the very end of the movie (it actually comes after the cut to the title card at the end, so it’s not even technically a part of the movie proper), that it pulls a lot of attention away from the movie itself. The “twist”, which technically isn’t even really a twist, ends up making the whole two hours before it take a backseat to literally the final ten seconds, and as much as I liked it that does feel like it’s diminishing the movie in a way. It doesn’t help that the ending of the proper movie comes off very anticlimactic, which after the final reveal gives off the impression that Shyamalan was saving the BIG ending for something not really related to the movie you spent that much time invested in. It certainly has drawn far too much attention away from the overall movie, but it could mean something very promising for the future that I absolutely hope comes to fruition, so there’s some give and take there. No matter what, it’s just nice to finally have a new Shyamalan movie that didn’t feel like a torture trial that I was forcing myself to suffer through.