It would be an understatement to say M. Night Shyamalan’s career to date could be charted by many peaks and valleys. Debuting with a trilogy of films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs), films which I hold a lot of fondness for to this day, the director quickly established himself as the new master of suspense. But since then Shyamalan has gone from the next Alfred Hitchcock to the next Hitch-not, making movies that range from the “just-okay” to the downright awful. Whilst his last film, 2015’s The Visit, was hailed as a return to form but proved far from it, his latest psychological thriller, Split, more than deserves the outpouring of praise from fans and critics alike; this is the director’s best work for over ten-years, and boy is it good to have him back.
Worth mentioning from the off is that, whilst a huge part of this film’s success lies in its ending – the best twist Shyamalan has pulled out of the bag since ‘Sixth Sense’ – you haven’t got to worry about that being spoilt here. All I’ll say is that it is an ending which left me beaming a grin from ear to ear, and which will be especially rewarding to anybody who has stuck with the filmmaker for all of these years.
But moving swiftly away from spoiler territory – you must seriously avoid any spoilers before seeing the film – there’s plenty to otherwise admire in Split, which is essentially Shyamalan dipping his toes into a genre that he’s only touched upon briefly before: the abduction horror-thriller.
The central conceit is one we’ve all seen before, one that involves the kidnapping of three teenage girls who have to try their best to escape their new prison. What separates this from others that have come before it however, is that their abducter has dissociative identity disorder – magnified here for the sake of the drama – and 23 distinctive personalities all living within him; some of which could prove helpful to the girls and some of which could prove deadly.
James McAvoy is the actor charged with the difficult task of bringing these multiple personalities to the screen, and he tackles the role with a combination of madcapped glee and subtle nuances. I’ve become a big fan of the actor in recent years, admiring the amount of work and energy that he puts into each of his performances, and here is no exception.
Obviously the camera work and framing of shots help create the illusion of these different characters living within one body, but in a moment in which the actor switches from one personality to the other in one static shot, shifting his physicality with remarkable control over his facial muscles, the brilliance of his performance is clear to see.
McAvoy’s performance goes a long way here, but seeing the director back on form is equally as thrilling. Stylistically, this is very much Shyamalan post-The Village, much more playful and contemporary in the way it’s shot. And whilst I don’t think this comes anywhere near as close to capturing the contemplative tones or textured cinematography of his earlier efforts, it’s the writing which shows signs of him returning to his roots.
When M. Night is at his best, he does a great job of drawing fully fleshed out characters regardless of their importance to the plot. So when I see a sequence in which the kidnapper’s psychologist have a conversation with an elderly neighbour obsessed with game shows, or a darkly comic gag that is told simply through a character’s headphones, I can’t help but compare it to the filmmaker’s earlier works.
There are negatives. For a film that is essentially dealing with mental health and sexual abuse, there are a few uncomfortable moments in which these themes feel trivialised by having the younger female characters reduced to wearing their underwear for a large portion of the time; and that’s before you even consider the film’s decision to inject an element of the supernatural into the way it deals with Kevin’s disorder.
However, as a whole Split is good enough to make me overlook some of its flaws. It kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end, left me in awe of James McAvoy and blew me away with an ending that gave me goosebumps. At a time where Hollywood is full of predictable franchise fodder, this is a little rarity of a film that manages to excite, shock and surprise. This type of film comes along once in a blue moon, so see it with as big an audience as possible and embrace it.
Image credit to http://www.impawards.com