Overview: Three teenage girls are held captive by a man suffering from Disassociative Personality Disorder which manifests as 23 different personalities. Universal Pictures; 2017; Rated PG-13; 117 Minutes.
In the Grand Scheme Of Things: It’s almost impossible to review an M. Night Shyamalan film in a vacuum, separate from the rest of his career. Historically, when it comes to constructional precision, Shyamalan has always been something of a revolutionary, a sort of Kanye West-ian artist who pours finely measured elemental arrangement into a pop-culture cookie sheet. His best work (Unbreakable, Signs, and The Visit) is kind of like cinema’s version of a Beck album, exhibiting a confidence, experimentalism, and potency of film storytelling language unmatched by any director working in the realm of wide release 2000s popcorn movies. To illustrate, it should be noted that Shyamalan really has not offered that many “twists,” contrary to what the too-easy one-line criticisms of the director would suggest. More often, his films operate with such a mindful economy that certain late developments land with affecting accuracy. But they’re just that. Developments, not twists. His more uneven films (The Village, Lady in the Water) suffer a little more to a weak story or weak story parts but not so much as to disallow appreciation of their awe-inspiring telling. Of course, that same filmography hosts more than one (The Last Airbender and After Earth, at least) films that collapse beneath the weight of a story so dreadful that the telling is a moot point, and combine this with the reductive assessment and under appreciation of his earlier, better films, and his reputation becomes so prominently damaged that it is nearly impossible to review his latest releases without some consideration as to whether the newest effort rights the reputational ship or digs more dirt from a grave hurriedly prepared by an impatient consumer base. I offer this career evaluation to append it with this: Based on his latest releases, The Visit and now Split, M. Night Shyamalan isn’t going anywhere, and he has a lot of good filmmaking left in his still relatively young career.
Split Is the Good Stuff: Split shows that its director still has an orchestral conductor’s control over his film elements. The story of three teenagers– Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy now two steps into building an even more empowered replacement to the traditional scream queen), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sul)—held captive by a man named Kevin with 23 personalities (James McAvoy), each of which speaks cryptically of the arrival of The Beast (presumably a 24th personality uncatalogued by his psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher played by Betty Buckley), Split is a movie about a haunted house inside of a haunted house. As we learn the extent and instigating trauma of Kevin’s fragmented mind, Casey, the eventual hero of the film, explores and flees through the confusing architecture of her makeshift prison, which seems to grow more labyrinthine at every turn. Horizontal pipes placed midway up the hallway way suggest perpetual inescapability. Walls of stone and dirt, metal, and dry wall give the sense that Kevin’s domestic space is growing like a living thing. What starts as three rooms spreads out into more. The prison space of Split recalls Nightmare on Elm Street in its physical composition but functions as a hyper-clever psychic extension of Kevin’s condition.
Within this space, Shyamalan unleashes his expectedly tight script, barely a single line delivered that does not eventually serve an understanding of a future line or a plot development, and yet so little of the dialogue feels like exposition. Likewise, Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis’ lensing gives Shyamalan all the right angles and just enough information so that each shot is its own telling, allowing the unbent wire of a coat hanger or the light within the crack of a door to become its own micro-story. With the last two decades of blockbuster cinema pushed by ‘roided-up spectacle of explosions, graphics, and market-concerned color palate, audiences might not immediately take to Shyamalan’s blending of Lumet-style script precision and Hitchcock’s framing and blocking to approach more modern genre fare, but that’s all the more reason to appreciate (and go see) Shyamalan’s better work when it arrives. We should be accustomed to and seeking this sort of tradition-inspired excellence.
A Few Chewy Bites: But, fair warning, in keeping with discussion of Shyamalan’s lean cooking, Split is a film with very little fat, but a few bites of gristle. The need to establish two dozen personalities in one character without real exposition dialogue presents a few challenges for Shyamalan’s standard straight-forwardness, with this story not quite as basic as “aliens invade Earth” or “a man is unbreakable.” As such, there’s a free-wheeling interchange of the psychological truth of Kevin’s condition and Shyamalan’s in-movie mythologizing of his condition to bend and move a supernatural narrative, a modification that might be interpreted as exploitatively ableist and demonizing of mental unwellness, but such a reduction ignores the story’s empathy for Kevin and most of his other personalities, many situated as clear victims to The Beast. Split is, in a sense, a supervillain origin story, but the supervillain is given a humanity we have not seen from DC and Marvel’s screen tellings of other supervillains. This is bolstered by a rather hypnotizing performance from McAvoy, who distorts accent, vocal tone, gestures, mannerisms, and even, it seems, physical features to play 23 characters sharing a body. McAvoy occupies this role with the sort of thespian joy we haven’t seen in a Shyamalan film since Mel Gibson’s turn in Signs.
There’s also a late reveal that introduces a running plot thread of sexual victimization, probably the darkest storyline we have seen from Shyamalan to date even as it is more strongly implied than explicitly provided, that lands a bit uncomfortably and at first feels shoehorned. But it eventually feeds a clarifying survivalist characterization of Casey and affords her not one, but two instances of overwhelmingly emotional triumph in the film’s shotgun blast of a climax and just after. A shot of Casey sitting wordlessly and with the barest hint of an expression in the backseat of a police cruiser might end up being one of the more powerful shots we see in 2017, not because of its contents—there’s literally nothing to it– but because of all of the near invisible pieces placed before it.
That Ending: Fuck yes. Fuck yes. Fuck yes.
Overall: Split is the work of an accomplished craftsman trying to expand and grow his talent. While not without blemishes, it earns its place on a mantle of film achievements that any director would be proud to have and all audiences should more studiously appreciate.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures