M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Hollywood. Not only because of his masterful thrillers, but also because of how sharply and quickly his career started to take a nose dive. “The Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” (minus the last 5 minutes) are all really well done films. All of them are excellent on some level. Most of us knows what happens to him after that. “The Village” is a very mixed bag. I love parts of it while I loathe other bits of it. But after that we were treated to some increasingly worse films, “The Lady in the Water”, “The Happening”, “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth”. M. Night went from highly respected director to a laughing stock. However, two years ago he released a small little passion project called “The Visit”, a movie that I enjoyed (more than a few others), but it showed the first inklings of a possible comeback.
“Split” is the full realization of that inkling. “Split” is a masterful and well realized thriller that equals part terrifying but also empathetic. Putting aside the mind blowing twist, this movie functions and works completely with or without it. There is a richness to the characters and also a thoughtful exploration. This is the first 2017 movie I’ve seen this January (yes believe it or not I decided to skip “Monster Trucks”) and what a great way to start off my 2017 movie watching season.
“Split” follows the story of a man with 23 distinct personalities. With a warning of a 24th one on the rise, he kidnaps three teenage girls for reasons unknown to them. The girls have to find a way to escape before the 24th personality takes shape.
Before this movie’s release there was a small (however somewhat vocal) outcry that this movie demonizes people with the disorder portrayed in the movie, DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder). I can confidently say that when viewing the actual movie, you won’t have that same perspective. This is a very heighten reality. Even though it feels grounded, there are some leaps of faith the movie asks you to make as the viewer. It becomes clear this movie isn’t really trying to make a big statement on mental illness. It’s a subject matter, and in many ways you may find it a bit empowering. If you’re looking for a serious exploration into the world of mental illness, this isn’t really that.
That isn’t to say this movie doesn’t deal with heavy subject matter. M. Knight carefully crafts and reveals layers to our main characters. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Casey gets the most depth out of the three girls. The revelations made of her character is haunting and tragic. Joy brings a strong sense of pathos to the role and gives a great follow up performance to her role in last year’s horror film “The Witch”. The other two girls aren’t given much, they are your typical teenagers in distress we see in a lot of movies. Played by “Edge of Seventeen” actress Haley Lu Richardson and also Jessica Sula respectively. Some of their dialogue at times feels natural but a little forced at the same time. Regardless, they serve their roles well.
The movie itself is M. Knight’s best directed and best looking film since “The Village”. For all the weaknesses of that movie, it was beautiful movie to look at (lensed by the master himself Roger Deakins). “Split” is an extension of that. Lensed by Mike Gioulakis, this movie feels like a very loving homage to a Hitchcock-like era of thrillers. The camera is used to build tension, steady, slow, perfectly famed. Some would argue this is a horror film, but I saw Shyamalan more interested in creating a dynamic psychology thriller that only edges into the horror genre when it needs too.
We don’t waste much time before we thrust right in the middle of the situation of it all. The girls are kidnapped, taken away and slowly more and more is reveal to the audience to the character, Kevin, whom has the 23 personalities. Much more is developed through the therapy sessions he has with Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher. These back and forth conversations show a different side to Kevin and it’s through Dr. Fletcher that we learn the possibilities that people with DID can have in the context of this world.
In front of this psychology thriller, we have the brilliance of actor James McAvoy anchoring and leading the film. In the hands of a lesser actor, this could have turned into one of the hammiest and cheesiest movies (and performances) that we’ve seen in a long time. McAvoy wisely knows how to navigate the different characters he needs to play and give them their own unique voice. He really does feel like several different characters all rolled into this one brilliant performances. He rides the line between insanity and outright crazy. He knows exactly when to pull back and when he is getting too large with his acting. If people didn’t know what kind of performer McAvoy could be, this is the best acting reel the guy could have asked for. He brings a complexity and a real humanity through both the writing and his own individual acting.
The movie isn’t quite perfect, I felt myself wanted a little more payoff for both the intense and all too real situation that Casey finds herself in (well the kidnapping part at least) and her own storyline. In many ways, the ending of her storyline feels all too real, a repeated cycle so to speak (I’m trying to tip toe around any sort of spoiler here). These types of thrillers that start from a similar premise building its tension to a massive climax are very difficult to do. It’s hard to pay off all the tension that was built from the opening frames of the movie. This does it better than most, but I still felt myself wanting just a bit more out of it.
Of course the twist is what really the payoff is. Which, for any who is looking to predict the twist, I promise you won’t guess it. I won’t hint at it here, but it caught me so off guard and will leave people buzzing for a while. “Split” is a movie I can see be mention up with Shyamalan’s best films like “Sixth Sense”, “Unbreakable”, and “Signs”. “The Visit” was just a small stepping stone and “Split” shows him back to what he does best. I only hope that he stays in these smaller to medium size films. It’s clearly where he feels most at home, and for the first time in a while I am really excited to see what he does next.