M. Night Shyamalan is back guys! In Brian De Palma form!
The most popularly-maligned director in Hollywood this side of Zack Snyder and Michael Bay, Shyamalan has spent a lot of time trying to get back to the wide acclaim that greeted his early career, trying to find a movie that can match the popularity of The Sixth Sense or the brilliance of Unbreakable. Who would have thought that he’d end up finding it by promptly ceasing to care what people think?
Rather than attempting the heavy or the respectable or the effects-driven, Shyamalan has functionally realized just around The Visit that he’s an old school shlockmeister, and that rather than Spielberg or Lucas, he’s De Palma. He can find something interesting and thoughtful in technically adept trashy/problematic storytelling more than he ever did when he actively tried to be thoughtful.
So, that brings us to Split, a thriller about a guy and a girl and a guy and a guy and a kid and a guy and…well, you get where I’m going with this. Shyamalan is diving deep into classic B-movie territory with a Disassociative Identity Disorder, Multiple Personality for the layman. Our DID sufferer is Kevin (James McAvoy), though we never meet him. We first meet him as Dennis (James McAvoy), as Dennis kidnaps three girls, friends Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and pity invite Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), from a parking lot in broad daylight.
Dennis takes them back to a basement fortress where he holds the girls hostage. We then meet Patricia (James McAvoy) and the plot thickens. Dennis and Patricia are personalities who believe in The Beast, a superpowered being who they believe lies above the other 23 personalities and who can be unlocked in ritual, the reason he kidnapped the girls. It’s a race against time as Casey’s surprising survival skills (given in tragic flashback) give a fighting chance of escape, as Kevin’s psychiatrist Fletcher (Betty Buckley) tries to discover what might be wrong and prove to the world what DID can do.
The undeniable feeling that circles around this movie, oddly enough, is fun. I don’t know if anyone making this film has ever enjoyed the movie they were getting to make more. Shyamalan has a hell of a technical team backing him up, most importantly Mike Gioulakis, the cinematographer for It Follows. His camera glides along with Shyamalan’s much more formal and careful approach to this film, managing to mine every bit of terror out of the claustrophobic set. In fact, I see a lot of the way It Follows approached scares in this movie, slow, methodical, slowly coming on you. Atmosphere versus surprise. Shyamalan’s letting his skill show through to sell the hell out of a shaggy and disjointed narrative sense, but I’ll get back to that in a second.
Because before anything else, we have to talk about James McAvoy in this film. I mean…wow. McAvoy is holding literally nothing back. There are two kinds of committed performances. There are realistic ones, where actors turn a character into a second skin, transforming like that’s who they’ve always been. And then there’s this, a scene-DEVOURING massive performance where McAvoy is not only the gravity around which this film revolves, but where you can almost imagine the grin he got before the camera got rolling.
He’s playing a guy with multiple personalities and he makes the (obvious) decision to play every single one of them as a separate character. McAvoy is giving every personality different voices, ways of holding himself, ways of moving, ways of looking and thinking and it never feels like a trick. It really does feel like he came up with 24 separate characters. A bit of an acting exercise sure, but it’s the commitment and the fact that he’s never taking it totally serious that works. He’s having an absolute blast playing these characters, and through that you have to admire the ledge that he steps out on.
The last one who’s visibly having a ton of fun is Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s getting a chance to play the Final Girl that she’s always been destined to be. She’s a legit badass who gets to play it that way, a pivot from her The Witch character. She’s believable doing anything and a great screen presence, so don’t overlook her in this movie.
“Fun,” “exciting,” “a blast” has been the operative word so, which is the mode that Shyamalan is working in, kind of a sick sort of thrill to wallpaper over some of his problems in the film. This isn’t a sin, on the contrary, film/horror can often use these things to con us into enjoyment, that’s just how the medium works.
When you break it down, Split is a bit of a disjointed film narratively. It’s practically buckling under exposition so that it can establish the rules of the world (for good purpose, granted). It has a repeated flashback structure for Casey that serves to underline her own trauma, and you can’t help but feel that there was a better way to do it.
And let’s face it, Split is a film that invites a conversation about the way that horror as a genre deals with mental health. DID is absolutely still an unproven thing, and this is a film that utilizes mental illness as a thing that turns someone evil, which we’ve had so much of. I will say that I don’t think Shyamalan is completely unaware of this though,
In fact, in a way, Split almost feels like it’s leaning into it. Much of this is from the De Palma handbook, the taboo and the trash becoming your storytelling vehicle. Split feels like traumasploitation, using the stereotypes and the stigma as a form of empowerment and as a form of rebellion against the larger world. That the pain of these characters, the trauma they’ve endured becomes their power. How much you’re willing to accept that as an excuse varies, but Shyamalan is certainly trying to figure out something through that shlock mode.
Of course, that depends also on how much patience you have for another film to use that stereotype, and how much you’re willing to let the film have so much fun while it makes that exploitation. Split is a flawed film, but far more enjoyable and interesting than anyone expected. This is also a film where sheer technical talent makes a movie work more than perhaps it should, or at least makes you care less about its flaws.