I assume you’ve all heard the impossible news by now, but it bears repeating: M. Night Shyamalan (yes, the guy who vomited out The Happening and After Earth) has created his first genuinely good and clever movie since The Sixth Sense, excluding the works of his that have their share of apologists like Signs, The Visit and Unbreakable (the latter of which I myself can’t say I dislike). In any case, the general consensus is that Shyamalan has rediscovered the more gifted version of himself that went missing some time around the millenium shift, which goes along neatly with the premise of today’s film – although some would say he merely “got lucky a second time”.
Split is a psychological and vaguely humerous thriller about a man who kidnaps three high school students and locks them up in what looks to be his home, only for them to learn that he has 23 different personalities; each time he comes to them, he is another version of himself. It did sound interesting when I first heard it, but in true Shyamalan-fashion, the questionable stuff reveals itself early.
You see, in addition to having multiple personalities, the character in question can apparently also modify his molecular structure and take on subtly different forms depending on which personality is in charge. Revealing this might be a mild spoiler on my part, but it is mentioned in the trailer and if you, as a viewer, can accept from the start that you’re not about to watch an accurate depiction of the real-life dissociative identity disorder (Split was clearly never intended as anything of the sort), you will most likely enjoy the rest of the film more. Keep that in mind for later, dear reader.
The three leading girls are the two “preppy” friends Claire and Marcia (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula), plus their introverted classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) who was just unfortunate enough to be at the same birthday party as them on the day of the abduction. When it comes to performances, Taylor-Joy makes for the most compelling lead, while her co-stars often struck me as rather amateurish. Best of all is obviously James McAvoy who plays the kidnapper and just about nails every version of the character and all of their respective voices and mannerisms. Thankfully, a significant portion of the film is dedicated to exploring him and his condition, the psychiatrist he frequently talks to (played sweetly by Betty Buckley), why he became what he is, and what the true purpose of the kidnapping was.
As all of this unwraps itself and McAvoy interacts with his victims in all sorts of unsettling ways, the music and camera work complement the experience beautifully. Even the more jarring staples of Shyamalan’s directing – like the weirdly framed and tilted shots, as well as those up-close shots where the actors stand at the center of the frame and stare at the camera – still fit the atmosphere of the film and add to its creep factor.
As you may already figure, I very much agree with the critics that this signifies some kind of Shyamalan comeback (in fact, and I hesitate to say too much: this is a film that’s best watched knowing who this director is). There may even be an Oscar or two on the horizon, most likely for McAvoy’s performance and Mike Gioulakis’ photography.
With that said, though, there are some things that take you out of it. There’s the odd line of dialogue or character action that’s too silly to take seriously, some of the editing choices are questionable, the exposition can at times be anything but elegant, and sometimes the aforementioned camera work is over-directed in ways that don’t add much to the feel of the film. I was also bothered by certain flashback sequences, some of them placed in awkward spots but some of them used in thematically appropriate ways.
Then there’s the controversy, which I hinted at in an earlier paragraph; where some argue that it is distasteful to turn a mental illness like DID into a horror element, even though they’re talking about a supernatural thriller about a guy who can magically alter his physiology and essentially transform into different people, some of whom possess strengths and physical ailments that the others do not. Now, I realize I’m probably not in an apt position to say whether someone is right or wrong in finding a piece of cinema “ableist”, but I’d still like to suggest that, prior to making such a judgement, it could be useful to actually see the movie first. Also, I really hope these guys don’t watch Lord of the Rings or Suicide Squad or [insert movie with certifiably insane villain here]. No campus on Earth could provide comfort after that, I’m speculating.
Social media outrage notwithstanding, I would advise you to give Shyamalan another chance and go see this film. Then again, if you’re the kind of person who could sit through Lady in the Water with a straight face, maybe you won’t need too much convincing.