Split: M. Night Shyamalan’s Back, for Better or for Worse

Split

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Split
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Opens January 20

Has M. Night Shyamalan gone mad with power, again? As the wunerkind behind The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, he was showered with next-Spielberg hype, which based on the likes of The Village and especially Lady in the Water, he began (or continued) to believe. Soon his elegant camerawork and expert summoning of mood (usually dread) were no match for his ponderousness, his awkwardly constructed imitations of human speech, his misjudged casting and performances, and whatever the living hell The Last Airbender was.

But Shyamalan had a comeback of sorts with The Visit, a low-budget found-footage thriller-comedy that found his strengths, including his often-underrated (or misinterpreted) sense of humor. At first glance, Split seems like more in that vein: A pulpy, potentially silly, efficient little thrill machine, with an exploitation angle: James McAvoy plays a creep who abducts three teenage girls from a mall parking lot and holds them captive. Only he’s not just a creep. As the girls acclimate to their homemade prison, they encounter a plainspoken fixer, a budding fashion designer, an eager-to-please little boy, and a no-nonsense woman, among others. The catch is, they’re all played by McAvoy, too—he’s living with multiple personalities, who each take turn stepping into “the light,” which is how they describe their control of the body where they cohabitate. We learn early on there are actually about two dozen such personalities, though not all of them come out to play over the course of the movie. The ones that do emerge speak of a coming monster—an especially transformative personality to step into the light permanently and rule them all.

There’s a pleasing audacity in Shymalan, who quickly became so well-known for his twist endings that sometimes his regular endings would be mislabeled as twists, taking a common hacky twist and making it his starting point. It takes a little while for the filmmaker to reveal McAvoy’s multitudes, but once he does, he doesn’t limit exploration of them to his current victims; he follows the therapist (Betty Buckley, she of the fierce protectiveness toward her orange drink in The Happening) who treats Kevin, the apparent given name of the original personality.

Though he doesn’t utilize a limited point of view for Split, Shymalan still establishes plenty of subjective viewpoints. He took The Visit as a production limitation on his distinct style, working interesting compositions into the viewfinder of a teenage videographer. Here, freed of those brief limitations, he’s back in high-style mode, with a lot of evocative shots composed to keep his actors all or partially hidden. Sometimes it’s for eerie suspense, illustrating the slight delay it takes for a car full of teenage girls to realize that the man who has slid into the driver’s seat is not, in fact, a dad, but a stranger. Sometimes it’s more subtly menacing, as when the captured girls are framed with characters or objects obscuring the full view of them. It’s rarely used as a cheap trick, and in fact mitigates the movie’s exploitation angle. Split earns its unsettling sense of the creeps and is a pleasure to regard even when it’s not springing surprises (the story, despite some complications, is relatively straightforward).

Further justifying all kinds of potentially hoary kidnapping-plot junk are the performances: Not just McAvoy, utterly convincing in his guises both showy and quiet, but Anya Taylor-Joy as the outcast among the three ladies, proving herself an intense-eyed genre MVP following The Witch and Morgan. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula are good, too, but Taylor-Joy was born to play the containment of hidden secrets and resentment, to carefully observe a dangerous man while silently working out how she might be able to get around the unseen horde he commands. Running flashbacks serve not to mete out puzzle pieces but construct a kind of parable of preparedness, like a more earthbound version of Signs. Taylor-Joy is playing someone whose life has, in its horrible way, prepared her for survival.

Sometimes Shyamalan’s ambition gets the better of him. There’s no real reason that Split should run a full two hours, and the tension slackens in the middle as the girls’ escape attempts and the therapist’s encounters with Kevin grow repetitive. This is Shaymalan’s longest movie to date, and sometimes it’s hard to understand exactly why. The filmmaking is crisp while the writing can be overelaborate, though he’s tamed his wildly bizarre phrasings to the point where he can make the awkwardness work for the characters, sometimes with a sort of knowing wink at his, and by extension their, peculiarities.

It’s heartening to see a writer-director refusing to follow the boilerplate post-flop advice about directing someone else’s screenplay, instead, essentially, directing away his biggest weaknesses. But Split does seem like evidence Shyamalan doesn’t plan on staying small and Blumhouse-size for a few more years. The movie’s final twist has little to do with what movie that precedes it, and is almost entirely meta-textual. For this nerd, it produced a simultaneous shock of delight and shiver of apprehension. It apparently took Shyamalan all of one movie to recover his grandiosity, and where he goes from here could be brilliant or terrible. He’s shown amazing capacity for both.

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