Screen Critics Adam takes a look at 2016’s Split – M. Night Shyamalan’s return to cinematic form.
Let’s talk about M. Night Shyamalan for a bit. He was once on the top of the world for making The Sixth Sense, a truly great thriller about a child that sees dead people. He then followed that up with Unbreakable and while that didn’t attract the same amount of love, it is still a great film. Then things started to go downhill. The Village, Lady in the Water and The Happening were all incredibly awful and made him a joke. Yet it seems like a revival is on the cards. The Visit was a pleasant surprise and now we have Split.
Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson, The Edge of Seventeen) and Marcia (Jessica Sula, Honeytrap) are kidnapped by a man who has 23 distinct personalities (James McAvoy, X-Men: First Class). And as terrifying as that is for the girls, it is made worse that all the personalities claim a new one called ‘The Beast’ is coming.
One of the problems that consistently comes up in M. Night Shyamalan films is that they are unintentionally funny. He just seems to be blind to the fact that some of the lines he makes his actors deliver sound completely stupid and will make the audience laugh rather than creeped out. And Split should do the same thing. After all it’s premise is absolutely crazy, the idea a person can be 23 completely different people is so nuts it belongs in a B-Movie, and Shyamalan hasn’t made it easy with the sort of personalities Dennis (Who I’m calling him for the sake of this review) is given. And yet it does work and it isn’t funny, most of the time anyway. Shyamalan shows a control of atmosphere he hasn’t had for years and so things that could easily be hilarious, and probably would have been in his last few films, end up being rather scary and creepy.
A lot of this though is down to James McAvoy. He had the insanely tough job of portraying all 23 personalities, that would probably kill him, but he still has at least five completely distinct characters he’s got to play throughout this movie. And he does it so well. Most of the time you can tell which personality he is thanks to the costumes, but even when the script calls for him to change mid-scene you can just tell because of the look he has. There is a very effective scene when he turns from Hedwig (An 8-year-old child) into Dennis, an OCD paedophile, and it is terrifying. This is all down to the change in look McAvoy has in one of the best performances he has ever committed to screen – Split benefits from his presence no end.
And everything comes together in what is one of the better put together films of Shyamalan’s career. There’s a simplicity to it with these three goals trying to escape from this insane man before the Beast shows up, something the movie builds up incredibly well. It’s smart enough not to ruin the tense scenes in the basement with a tonne of exposition, another regular flaw in Shyamalan films, and instead moves them above ground with a professor (Betty Buckley, Eight is Enough) trying to prove the condition that Dennis has actually exists. It’s just smart film making that realises what it needs to do to make itself as good as possible.
Of course as this is a Shyamalan film which means there is a twist at the end. Interestingly, the main plot of the film has no twist and the movie could work perfectly as well without one. Again, Shyamalan realises that shoving twists into films which don’t need them only make them worse and it was that which made him into the joke that made trees evil. But there is one, right at the end in the final scene of Split. And if you get it, you’ll love it. It’s a perfectly done wrinkle to the story, something that suggests greatness down the line and it made me leap up from my seat.
Of course it isn’t perfect. A lot of the usual Shyamalan quirks are still there, including a not needed cameo by the man himself which ends up being more distracting than it’s worth, and while some can be fun, a lot are still irritating. But the biggest problems are the flashbacks. Basically we get backstory on Casey and why she seems to be quite used to being hostage to someone, which is a bit unusual. But the backstory is trite, doesn’t add anything and at worst could be offensive to some of the people watching. It’s not the worst telling of this kind of story, but it isn’t needed and I feel if you are going to do this sort of thing, you best have a reason.
Split is not just fantastic because it is a truly great thriller with enough twists and turns to keep it exciting but because it is a sign that a once visionary director turned into joke is now back as a serious deal. Shyamalan obviously had talent, even in the worst of films, which made him even more frustrating and anger inducing. Uwe Boll makes terrible movies, but he’s so obviously terrible and not suited to making movies you can’t get too wound up about it. But Shyamalan has good ideas and can pick a shot, which made his terrible movies so irritating. But he’s now proved The Visit is not a fluke with Split, a really fun and creepy movie you need to so.