Shyamalan overcomes inconsistency with ‘Split’
Brian Boylen | Monday, February 13, 2017
There are few names in Hollywood as polarizing as M. Night Shyamalan.
Although he is responsible for certified classics such as “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs,” his reputation has been marred by recent blunders such as the atrocious “The Last Airbender” adaptation. Shyamalan’s inconsistency makes it clear that he is no Hitchcock or Kubrick — but that doesn’t mean he can’t make a fun, enjoyable film. Shyamalan has done just that in “Split,” approaching the thriller genre with a healthy dose of campy B-movie charm.
The movie opens with the abduction of three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), by an enigmatic and soft-spoken man named Dennis (James McAvoy). The girls (now trapped in foreboding underground bunker) realize that something is off about their captor, and discover that he has a mind-bogglingly severe case of dissociative identity disorder — resulting in 23 distinct personalities sharing his body. The details of the condition are fleshed out in scenes with Kevin’s (the original personality) psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who acts as a familiar “concerned doctor” character. The primary conflict of the film arises from Kevin’s own internal struggle, as some of his personalities have revolted in anticipation of the arrival of “The Beast,” a mythological persona they believe is destined to come.
I confess that I was not looking forward to this movie when the trailer first came out. The premise was ridiculous, and I couldn’t envision becoming immersed in a thriller that has a 37-year-old man acting as a 9-year-old boy. I now realize I was looking at the movie with the wrong mindset. “Split” is not a serious and perpetually tense thriller — a la “Green Room” — but is rather a pulpy, campy movie that intersperses many moments of levity throughout the otherwise grim plot. So yes, Hedwig (the 9-year-old personality) talking about how much he loves dancing in his room to Kanye West albums is silly, but it fits the tone Shyamalan is trying to establish.
Straddling this line between silly and serious is no easy task, and its success in “Split” is due largely to McAvoy’s performance. McAvoy transitions from persona to persona with a deft hand: It isn’t typically hard to see which personality is currently in control, but McAvoy’s acting is nuanced and restrained enough that the different identities do feel like real characters, not just outlandish caricatures. The whole multi-personality facet of the character is used cleverly throughout the movie and never feels like a stupid gimmick. In particular, the fact that the personalities are all aware of each other introduces an intriguing depth to the movie. The conflicting personas are not all in agreement with each other: They try to sabotage and even impersonate others to fulfill their own goals.
“Split” impresses on the technical level as well. Shyamalan works well with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, best known for the lauded horror flick “It Follows,” to create a visually thrilling ride. The movie uses interesting camera techniques, with many point-of-view shots and some clever uses of mirrors. The overall subjective, confusing visual feel of the movie is an effective reflection of the subject matter. Shyamalan clearly enjoys playing with the perceptions of the audience and stylishly cultivates an unpredictable and thrilling atmosphere.
Regarding plot, “Split” is one of Shyamalan’s more straightforward films — there is no shocking twist at the end that fundamentally changes how the rest of the movie should be viewed. (There is a reveal at the end, but it serves as more of a meta Easter egg than as a crucial component of the movie.)
I imagine that “Split” will end up one of Shyamalan’s more positively perceived films. It lacks the scope and perfection to go down as a classic like “The Sixth Sense,” but its playful, almost interactive nature provides for an undeniably fun experience. Now the only question is whether this marks the beginning of Shyamalan’s critical resurgence, or if this success was merely a stroke of luck.