“He’s done awful things, and he’ll do awful things to you.”
For what it’s worth, Split might be the best movie writer/director M. Night Shyamalan has made in a decade. Maybe even a decade-and-a-half, in fact. Perverse, unsettling, twisted, self-contained and, best of all, far less cringeworthy than Shyamalan’s usual output, the chamber thriller/sporadic character study will likely be likened to last year’s surprising, captivating 10 Cloverfield Lane and Don’t Breathe, and those comparisons are not in vain. Shyamalan’s 12th feature film will undoubtedly be met with some stern criticism too — and that doesn’t merely come from the director’s less-than-noteworthy reputation-of-late. Centered on a trio of teenage girls, which includes the resourceful, if moody and troubled, Casey Cooke (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) alongside the frightened Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), as they’re kidnapped and trapped in confinement with the elusive Kevin Wendell (James McAvoy) and his 24 distinctly different personalities — including the OCD Dennis, the stern British Patricia, the nine-year-old rap-enthusiast Hedwig and a few others that soon come to light — Split will, without question, be controversial and possibly condemned, but I’d be two-faced if I said I didn’t have a lot of fun watching it.
Though Split is creepier and unabashedly (and, perhaps, intentionally) quirkier than anything Shyamalan has done in years, and that includes the better-but-still-not-quite-good The Visit, there’s still a prevailing sense that the one-time auteur is completely taken by his own madness at this point. With this new movie, the scorched filmmaker once considered “the next Spielberg” reunites with producer Jason Blum to try to recapture that strange magic that he once contained with The Sixth Sense and, from what I’ve been told, Unbreakable, but it’s easy to claim that he’s trying too hard to wilder and weirder than ever without truly inviting anything profound or revelationary in the process. Shyamalan’s vision is … shall we say, specific, but is it truly all that unique? He has style, sure, but how much does that matter when the substance is fleeting? One begs to differ.
What makes Split much more enjoyable than the notorious director’s other, less enticing recent films is the ongoing sense that he’s finally in on the joke. It’s a funny, absurd movie from Shyamalan. But for once, more often than not, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Amidst all the disturbing moments are some truly pulpy, peppered moments of levity, looseness and crass that don’t necessarily put you on ease, but they help ease you into the underlying sympathy of such a wickedly demented character. Though it’s a better script than Shyamalan has conceived in a good, long while, Split lives purely on the strength of its central actor. Thankfully, McAvoy is downright extraordinary in this varied portrayal. Though the Scottish thespian can’t make a few personalities more than extreme idiosyncracies, as actors can only do such much with the material they’re given, McAvoy brings such an intensive versatility, vibrant variety and sometimes deep-seated humility to these individual characters that it’s simply remarkable to watch him switch between the two, three, four, five, etc. — sometimes in a single scene or shot. Split is not an easy film to make (no film is easy to make…), nor is it an easy gig for any actor to sign onto, but McAvoy is so very clearly inspired and willing to throw himself into these oddball eccentricities that it’s an absolute joy to watch him go nuts.
While McAvoy is nothing short of brilliant throughout, however, the committed actor can’t make the absolutely ridiculous ending work against his best efforts. Split was always going to be an uphill battle because portraying dissociative identity disorder, i.e. DID, a.k.a. multiple personality disorder, in such a bombastic, illogical manner is working towards bringing one of the most misunderstood mental conditions to the forefront in a way that’s largely going against what is known and understood by common modern science. To say that it puts a bad light on the already-misinterpreted mental illness is putting it mildly. Shyamalan isn’t going to win a lot of friends in the psychological studies community — though, in all fairness, that isn’t necessarily what he’s trying to achieve here. To the film’s credit, Split does go out of its way to explain and explore the fascinating human developments that have been found by those who have been diagnosed with this condition. It doesn’t necessarily forgive some of the film’s glaring problems, but it does certainly make it more interesting and thoughtful. That’s all before the positively maddening final act, however, where everything goes off-the-wall (and sometimes on-the-wall) insane in ways that are sometimes pretty entertaining, but overall just plain silly.
It should be noted, however, that anyone expecting pure honesty from Split is simply coming in with unrealistic expectations. Above all else, Shyamalan is aiming to entertain first and enlighten second. Those who want to learn the absolute truths of the condition can do their homework at home. Though it’s easy to say that Shyamalan is being irresponsible with his personification(s) of DID, especially as he’s working with the impressionable bunch we know as moviegoing Americans, it’s not Shyamalan’s job to teach people how to perceive this mental affliction. If anything, Shyamalan encourages people to do their research, and that’ll only better people’s understanding of DID. I know it bettered mine, at least. For that, I’m grateful.
If it doesn’t reward your viewing experience, however, one should at least admire the unexpected craftsmanship that went into this new film. Between its wonderfully handled cinematography, including some excellent use of off-kilter POV shots throughout, its sharp editing and its focused direction, Split is, quite impressively, the best work Shyamalan has done behind the camera in far too long. It doesn’t always work, but it’s clear that the filmmaker is slowly-but-surely returning to his roots, all while figuring himself out more-and-more with each passing film. I don’t know if I feel completely comfortable calling it Shyamalan’s first good film in years, but it’s pretty damn close.
There’s a lot to celebrate and a lot to criticize in Shyamalan’s latest. From Taylor-Joy’s excellent performance to its rather icky desire to constantly show young women underdressed (which actually kinda works in its favor, though, because it gets you into the warped perceptions of McAvoy’s different characters, but at any rate…) to its creepy score, which never fails to rattle, Split is unquestionably a divisive film, even by Shyamalan’s usual standards. Even I find myself rather … well, split. But with his latest, Shyamalan proves himself sharper, stronger, more diligent and more defiant than ever, and that shouldn’t be overlooked. The filmmaker has made one of his most unconventional, disarming and comfortably awkward films to date — and that’s saying something, considering it’s the guy behind The Happening, Signs, The Village and The Last Airbender, just to name a handful. Shyamalan is nothing if he’s not unpredictable, and Split is anything but traditional. But even Shyamalan’s best, most multi-layered work in years can still end up a little mixed.