Split November 25, 2017
M. Night Shyamalan
Haley Lu Richardson
Brian William Henke
1 Hr., 57 Mins.
We could picture M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2017) residing in the filmography of thriller maestro Brian De Palma, released smack dab in the middle of the latter director’s Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976). And not just because it features Betty Buckley, who so memorably played the fragile Sissy Spacek’s understanding gym teacher in the ‘76 film. Also because it flaunts a carefully calculated sleaze, the kind you’d like to pass off if it also weren’t additionally surrounded with so much technical and performative spunk.
In the film, a madman possessing 23 personalities (James McAvoy) kidnaps a trio of wide-eyed teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula), keeps them locked tightly in a seemingly inescapable bunker, and threatens to unleash his 24th, oft-repressed identity to whom he refers as “The Beast." The days pass quicker than falling sand in a Yahtzee hourglass.
Shyamalan’s camera looks at the characters slightly more statically than De Palma’s – it coldly observes like an emotionally numbed psychiatric ward patient – but the film nonetheless resembles the thrillers the latter made during those peak years. The split screens, liking of at once empowering (final girl Taylor-Joy confidently wields a shotgun) and exploiting (Sula spends much of the running time wobbling about in a pair of panties) women, and the throwing of bruisers of finales with reckless abandon are just some of the De Palma trademarks that make their way into the feature. Whether Shyamalan as comfortably wears his influence’s neo-Hitchcock aesthetic is not such an easy conclusion one can come to. But one consumers can more simply gravitate toward is that the Shyamalan audiences and critics so eagerly embraced during the late 1990s has made his comeback.
Cinephiles know the Shyamalan story by now. After announcing himself as one of his generation’s best directors with a three-picture hot streak comprised of 1999’s The Sixth Sense, 2000’s Unbreakable, and 2002’s Signs, the director, sort of inexplicably, lost his footing. Following 2004’s The Village release to polarized reception, Shyamalan appeared to lose sight of what made him so unique: Lady in the Water (2006) started a series of awkward, comprehensively misguided projects that eventually peaked with the reverse one-two punch of The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013). A young upstart who seemed to have everything going for him just a decade prior had suddenly become the Nicolas Cage of directing: a promising artist who sacrificed fearless ambition for colorless bandwagon-hopping.
But with 2015’s charming The Visit – an effective, smart horror movie for kiddos – Shyamalan seemed to suddenly announce that he was done making swill. And all it took to make that a successful reality, apparently, was a modest budget, a game, generally unknown cast, and a clever premise. With the snap of a finger, he undid the damages inflicted by the legacy he had begun cultivating for himself. And Split, so furious and so pulpy, extends this reputational reversal: Shyamalan is indeed having his own version of Elvis’ 1969 comeback special. Though it’s fit with a premise so simplistic that most modern-day thrillers might turn the other way when approached by its old-fashioned audacity, it makes for one of the year’s most entertaining cinematic roller coasters.
Here, everyone’s a victim. The teenage girls are more exposed than prey to be devoured by Richard Speck, and Buckley, playing our central antagonist’s psychiatrist, eventually becomes a victim of her own curiosity. And even McAvoy’s Kevin isn’t so easy to detest. He might be a monster in several regards, but he’s only a monster because he was abused by his mother and unwittingly created new personalities to defend himself. Shyamalan knows how to make us both gawk at these characters and actually try to understand them. The instant star Taylor-Joy’s supposed to be the outcast sidelined with the approachable beauties that are Richardson and Sula, but it turns out that Taylor-Joy has a meaty backstory that makes her more than a dark-haired pouter. Richardson and Sula possess a craftiness that makes their courageousness affect.
McAvoy can dazzle us all he wants as he breezily takes on the roles of a lisped child, a fashionista, a motherly middle-aged woman, and more. But there’s also a certain poignancy that arises from this character’s inability to have a fully formed personality because of his childhood victimhood. Most compelling, though, is Buckley’s portrayal of our central antagonist’s psychiatrist. She stares at her patient with wonder, her mouth often agape. Something tells us that she’s also distinctly aware that her interest could get the best of her. But Shyamalan doesn’t dig too unnecessarily deep into these individuals: this is a modern-day Hitchcockian thriller, and such makes it clear that he’s much more excited by the prospects of beckoning goosebumps out of us than making us get too carried away with our feelers.
So he finds a happy medium between lightweight popcorn fare and slow-burning psychological fooey. So careful is Shyamalan’s attention to detail – as well as his fastidious way of making sure the film avoids the operatics it seems inclined to promise – that we find ourselves breathless when realizing how uncommon it is to really and truly sit at the uttermost edge of your seat. To actually sweat bullets when the rubber band of suspense seems primed to break.
Sure the finale drags, sure McAvoy’s performance too often feels like a Performance, and sure we wish Split contained the kind of plot twist Shyamalan’s movies have become so famous for. But the movie does so many things well, it makes us contemplate the current state of the thriller genre, and how rare it is to see an enjoyable genre picture of its form making its way into almost every theater across America. B+