Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan had the misfortune of making a name for himself twice. In 1999, and through the early years of the twenty-first century he was considered the second coming of Spielberg, with his exquisitely formal features that each in some way focused on or recalled a child’s relationship to the fantastical, and culminated in a unique narrative twist that at best completely pulled the rug out from his audience and recontextualized the entire film. The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and The Village became a de facto quadrilogy, if not in story sense, in their relative effectiveness in style and tone, and abilities to bond with their audiences over much anticipated, climactic plot twists. Then suddenly, in the middle of the last decade, and for the better part of the next ten years, Shyamalan began to explore his abilities as a filmmaker within the context of fairytales and social consciousness, in effect breaking the audience’s trust by refusing to capitulate to the pigeonholing, and literally turning his name into a title card that was to be laughed at and derided when flashed on screen during previews. Some of us never doubted him, and carried the torch of gobsmacked awe even through the box office disasters Lady In The Water, The Happening and The Last Airbender, until his found footage horror urban legend The Visit in 2014 seemed to allow audiences to forgive and forget, no doubt due to its straight-faced, irony-free following of established trends – but for a lot of us, the formalism was still there.
Now we have Split, a bonafide hit, and based on the box office returns the first Shyamalan film to actually feel like a Shyamalan film to audiences in a dog’s age. On its surface the film teases a Hitchcockian horror show, a tale of a crazed villain with multiple personalities kidnapping and terrorizing three young women locked up in a basement somewhere, cut off from the world. It’s just the kind of delicious potboiler to thrive in the theatrical offseason, and the director does not disappoint in its execution. I would love to call it a return to form, but I am one of the few who never thought he went anywhere – a rabid fan that cannot get enough of his perfect camera placement, unmotivated pans, rigid adherence to formal techniques, and the way he can make something seem oddly familiar, yet wholly original just by observing. Split works on an alarming number of levels, treating fans to not only a multitude of personalities, delivered with varying degrees of success by James McAvoy, but many different perspectives on the story, teasing an omniscience on the part of the audience, while still holding back some of the most important cards in his hand for the finale.
Abducted from a birthday party right at the beginning of the film, are Casey Cooke (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends, in a marvelously visual scene that immediately puts us in her headspace through deft editing, rear view mirrors, and subtle movement of the camera back and forth around her face, a movement that will be repeated later. Her friend’s dad stops at the trunk to put away leftovers, but “Dennis” (McAvoy) is the one who ultimately enters the driver’s side. We stay with the girls for a little while, as they wake up in a sealed-off room, and Shyamalan has some fun with McAvoy’s many personalities, as if nobody in the theatre has seen a single preview, turning their moment of discovery into a big shocking reveal when Patricia comes in to speak with them wearing a skirt, and looking exactly like the man who abducted them. While we may know this information going into the film, the girls do not, and it’s great to see Shyamalan have so much fun with it, as it also serves to slyly make audiences feel like they have the upper hand. Casey immediately formulates a plan on her own, to attempt to manipulate the different identities, specifically the child Hedwig, into opening up an opportunity for escape, and in that Shyamalan jettisons the victim/aggressor dynamic that usually burns a few scenes in films like this. Instead we have an intelligent, active character right from the start, a refreshing change from the norm. Occasionally Split will flashback to Casey as a child, detailing a very troubled existence with her uncle, who it is suggested repeatedly molested her after her father died and he was awarded custody. With Shyamalan though, these scenes are far from being merely expository, and while they underline a connection Casey establishes with several of her kidnapper’s personalities, of course they will play a much bigger part in the end.
Shyamalan alternates these scenes with a different, much more unique and puzzling perspective, that of the villain’s doctor and neuroscientist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is seen meeting with one or many of his personalities, and speaking to colleagues in her field about her subject, who she is treating while monitoring his assimilation into the real world. There are extended scenes of her detailing the struggles he has between his various personalities – twenty-three in total – and a theory is put forth that the power of mind over matter in cases of multiple personality disorder is so strong that physical changes can manifest with the switch from one to the other. This is quite a bit of narrative material to juggle, and while the film may occasionally feel like it is spinning off into a rabbit hole, and coasting laterally through its story, the anticipation that we are inching towards the creation of a twenty-fourth personality is the through-line that holds everything together, and the twist that comes at the end is born more from this film’s textual relationship to earlier work by Shyamalan, than a true bait-and-switch. Split‘s climax instead is an expert payoff from a carefully constructed and established world that needed every second of its time to build.
Strangely enough the actor who comes across the least effective is James McAvoy. Without much screen time for each personality, a few of them appear gimmicky, full of learned mannerisms that might otherwise pass for sketch comedy. Others, like “Hedwig” and “Barry” are more fully realized, and show McAvoy as one of the leading actors of his generation. Instead, Split belongs to Taylor-Joy, who is put through the emotional ringer, where everything stems from a private, internal conflict, struggling to break free – not unlike McAvoy – but different in the sense that cause and effect have a much more observable influence, and the evolution of her character is part of the film’s subtext, as opposed to the very physical, plot-centric evolution of McAvoy’s. Despite what happens in this film Shyamalan never forgets that character comes first, and Taylor-Joy continues carving out a body of work that is refreshingly full-bodied, her second great film in a row.
It won’t take long for Split‘s secrets to get out. Second weekend and subsequent theatergoers no doubt enter the auditorium primed for the continuation of M. Night’s Cinematic Universe, but the film is as far from the superficiality such a designation suggests as it can get. Like the director’s best works its revelations and twists add depth to the characters as much as the story, and that, along with the film’s formal mastery, should have audiences coming back for more; if for no other reason than the joy of trying to piece out the puzzle after already knowing the answer. I really hope it’s not too long to wait before Shyamalan returns to the world of Split, and I hope the critical and popular resurgence this film brings him is not squandered. I think we can all agree the world is a better place when it is unanimously rooting for him instead of booing him, and Split is just the type of trumpeting firebrand to rally the troops like very few films can these days, especially since it came so completely out of the blue.
The Verdict: Rave