M. Night Shyamalan is back, but is he here to stay?
This is question that is raised by his latest thriller, Split. Over the course of eighteen years, Shyamalan went from being an Oscar-nominated writer/director to the poster boy of bad filmmaking. In 2015, he made a relatively small comeback with The Visit, a low-budget found-footage film with a relatively unknown cast. Now, Shyamalan is not using the found-footage gimmick, and he is working with big name actors again, this time being James McAvoy. So has Shyamalan finally returned to form?
Following a birthday party, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is taking a ride home with two other girls, Claire and Marcia. A stranger walks up to the car, takes out the driver, and knocks the girls out with gas. When the girls wake up, they find themselves locked in a basement in an unknown area. They discover that their captor, Kevin (James McAvoy), suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID)—a mental disorder where at least two identities are present in an individual. Kevin has 23 identities in him, including an OCD freak named Dennis, a sophisticated woman named Patricia, and a nine-year-old boy named Hedwig. The three girls do not know why Kevin has abducted them, but Kevin’s multiple personalities assure them that they are there for a reason. While the girls remain locked up, Kevin (or whoever he is at the moment) visits his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), where he expresses a warning about a new identity emerging—a deadly one, simply known as “the Beast.”
Already, we have a few questions regarding the plot. Why did Kevin kidnap these girls? What exactly is “the Beast”? And how are these girls going to escape their captivity? These questions are enough to drive the plot forward, but the details are unraveled at a pace that adds to the intrigue, making Split one of Shyamalan’s more effective films.
In terms of writing, Split is a marginal improvement for Shyamalan. One of the prime weaknesses of his films is that the screenplays are weak and filled with lines that no person would naturally say. This wasn’t as problematic in his earlier films because it added to the unusual atmosphere of his stories, but in more mainstream attempts like The Last Airbender, the forced line delivery was off-putting. In Split, there are moments of odd dialogue, but these are confined to the beginning, and start sounding more natural over time, which is interesting considering how strange this story is. The directing and cinematography successfully convey the claustrophobia of the kidnapped girls, as well Kevin’s disorder.
The actors’ performances help boost the quality of the film. I am generally against using the word perfect but I have to make an exception here, as James McAvoy is perfect in his role, (or roles, if you will). Every moment he appears on screen, I believe the identity he is portraying. The trailer showed his sillier moments, but even these work in the context of his overall performance. McAvoy, in my opinion, is an underappreciated actor, and this film showcases how bold he can be.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who gave a spectacular performance last year in The Witch, also displays some killer acting chops in her role as Casey. However, for every barrel of apples, there are bound to be a few bad ones, and unfortunately, the performances of the other two girls are not strong. They seem miscast in their roles, and their line delivery sounds forced. Betty Buckley does fine in her role as the psychiatrist, especially given the fact that she has to deliver the more expository lines of dialogue, and thankfully her performance here shows no traces of Mrs. Jones from The Happening. Shyamalan also has his customary cameo in the film, as if he is Alfred Hitchcock, but compared to his cameos in previous films, this one actually works fine.
Also, as with most Shyamalan films, there is a twist ending, but this one is special—the kind of twist that begs you not to spoil it, especially since it is so unexpected and practically transforms what could have been a casual thriller into something more. The best twist endings often make viewers go back to the theater to see the film again and search for clues they missed the first time, and this film might well have the same effect. On the other hand, I did hear one negative reaction to this film’s twist from my screening’s audience. So while film buffs might appreciate this ending in light of a different Shyamalan film, which I won’t name, others may feel confused. Perhaps the audience might have a “split” reaction?
It is hard to know for sure whether M. Night Shyamalan is truly back to form yet. What I can say, however, is that he is certainly on his way. Split is well shot, well acted, and has a story that will keep you invested until the very end, leaving you wanting even more when it is over. I am certainly not split on this film.