Well, folks, it's that time again: time to come together with hesitancy and trepidation to decide whether another M. Night Shyamalan film is worth another go. He is a filmmaker of unique ability that, sadly, derailed his career while at its zenith and has spent lo these last dozen years trying to make it back. 2015 saw The Visit turn a tidy profit and convince some that he was returning to form. This writer was less enthusiastic, (see the September 2015 column in these pages) but was nonetheless encouraged. However Split, another collaboration with horror producer Blumhouse, has convinced me that one of my favorite directors is indeed staging a sneaky comeback.
Split is the story of 3 teenage girls (led by Anya Taylor-Joy) who are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with 23 distinct personalities. On the surface, it looks like a fairly typical hostage horror flic, and its January release date and much of its marketing material do little to refute this. While it does share certain elements with that particular genre, its heart and head are often in a much different place. It is, like Shyamalan's better work, an interior examination.
THOSE WISHING TO AVOID SPOILERS WOULD DO WELL NOT TO READ BEYOND THIS POINT. JUST KNOW THAT I RECOMMEND THIS FILM, AND WAS DELIGHTED AND SURPRISED THEREWITH.
Much of that examination takes place with Kevin, embodied by James McAvoy, to whom this film really belongs. I know many members of a contemporary audience would be uncomfortable with the villain of a film being a man with a mental disorder. But the film never really makes it that simple. To begin with, he and his other personalities are never really unsympathetic once we meet them. He is winning and charming and vulnerable and troubled, and even in menace there is more to be pitied than hated. It is complex role for a fine actor.
The personalities McAvoy illustrates for us are the chief backdrop of Shyamalan's inner investigation regarding the effects of suffering, specifically abuse. Of course there is a substantial WHAT IF speculation about the causes of multiple personalities and what their limits are, but then this is a fantasy. It all serves Shyamalan's greater question: what of good and evil comes of pain?
So in this sense Split is much more a Shyamalan film than The Visit, which dealt with its deeper themes in a more secondary way. In this film they are the primary focus. There is far too little action and too few jump scares for it to fit appropriately within the straight-up horror genre, which was always what made his good films so great.
OK REALLY NOW YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.
I had heard rumblings, prior to seeing the movie, of a really actually good twist, which Shyamalan is of course quite famous for. I was intrigued, but also skeptical, because these things are often artificially hyped for the sake of clicks. As the film progressed, I kept searching about for potential hints, but nothing satisfied me or panned out.
But when it came (personally I recognized a musical cue before the scene laid it out, which makes me feel more clever than I probably should) I wasn't sure how I felt at first. But as the credits rolled, I thought, that's the way to do it. To give an audience an authentic experience introducing an antagonist into an existing world, they can't know they are in that world. For the antagonist truly inhabits a separate place, one completely foreign to the hero. And to understand him and come to truly sympathize with him, we must live in his world without thought of another place. Now, I'm not holding my breath for some colossal cinematic smackdown in the nearish future, but it was a fun, if somewhat devious, way to reintroduce a story closed for 15 years. And to (possibly, hopefully) signal the re-emergence of one of our more unique mainstream filmmakers.
Split features James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula, and is rated PG-13 for hostage horror elements and gross stuff, mature material, and some swearsing.
Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
by Chase Harrison