You’d be hard-pressd to think of a filmmaker in recent memory who had a more spectacular fall from grace than M. Night Shyamalan. During his early years, the days of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, he was being touted the next big thing in American cinema, a new golden boy who might even become the next Steven Spielberg. Then the ending of Signs came along, kickstarting a rapid decline from hot new property to punch-line. Within a few years, Shyamalan’s name elicited groans during trailer screenings, and the legendary disaster that was The Last Airbender seemed to leave an indelible stain on the young filmmaker’s career.
However, if there’s one narrative we love more than the fall from grace – in and out of the realm of fiction – it’s the underdog’s return to glory. We love seeing our heroes broken, brought low, only to rise back up again. Heck, we’ve certainly made enough movies out of that story type. It’s still too early to tell if M. Night is beginning a climb back into the light, but his new film Split appears to be a step back in the right direction, if nothing else. Split is a definite return to form for Shyamalan, a tight little thriller kept afloat by some strong performances and well-maintained tension that reminds us why we took notice of the writer-director in the first place, and hopefully the first sign of a rebound.
Split begins when three teenage girls, including Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), are kidnapped and imprisoned by a mysterious man played by James McAvoy. As the girls’ captivity goes on, it becomes apparent that their captor isn’t a run-of-the-mill kidnapper or serial killer, but rather someone suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, better known as Multiple Personality Disorder. The man, who we learn is named Kevin, has twenty-three separate identities, two of which have seemingly taken over the group in preparation for the arrival of a twenty-fourth. To make matters worse, we learn that the twenty-fourth personality, referred to as “The Beast,” may even possess superhuman abilities.
With a premise like this, it should seem obvious that James McAvoy’s performance is one of the film’s major “make or break” elements. It would be very easy for something like this to slip into gimmickery, a manic pinballing between various affectations and accents in place of a performance. Thankfully, this is avoided by the care McAvoy puts into his performance, and also the fact that he mostly plays only four to five different “alters” rather than trying to cram as many in as possible. For the most part he pulls it off, and each distinct personality feels impressively realized beyond just speech patterns and affectations. Opposite McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy continues to impress in a performance that doesn’t call for a whole lot, but still gives her room to flex the acting chops that helped her break out in The Witch.
In terms of form, Split brings back a lot of the unique elements that originally distinguished Shyamalan as a filmmaker with – if nothing else – a distinctive style. There are lots of understated long takes, with conversations often filmed from static angles in unbroken shots that eschew the usual shot/reverse-shot tactics. It’s quiet and moody, usually deftly shot in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It knows how to balance moments of tension with more quiet scenes of character and world building, which helps each “mode” to succeed at what it needs to accomplish.
There are still pitfalls that keep the film from being a rousing tour-de-force return to greatness, however, and usually the same flaws that often hampered Shyamalan’s work. There is the occasional burst of ridiculously overwrought dialogue, with characters spitting out unwieldy sentences that feel more like overplayed scriptwriting than anything an actual human being would utter. Also, at times the film can wander, veering dangerously far from “slow burn” territory towards dullsville. Some have argued that Split may have worked better as a short film, and there are moments when that’s hard to argue. What ultimately saves it is the very self-conscious lack of any major “What a twist!” moment. There are a few surprises along the way, but Split doesn’t have a big surprise in its core narrative. You’ll notice that “core narrative” caveat, there, because there IS one big surprise at the very very end, but it’s one so superfluous to the film as a stand-alone piece that you could easily just stop the movie a minute early and not lose anything major. You may get a little kick out of it, and it’s looking as though it will play heavily into Shyamalan’s follow-up project, but if you want to enjoy Split entirely as its own entity, you can just ignore its presence entirely.
As a general rule, you should never directly or indirectly discourage a creator from continuing to create, even if they haven’t been exactly successful at it lately….or ever. Everyone has a chance to bounce back, even if they’re coming off of a series of spectacular missteps. If Split is any indicator, M. Night Shyamalan may be on the brink of a return to past glory, and this writer for one hopes this upward climb continues, and the potential so many people saw early in his career might be realized after all.