M. Night Shyamalan has done it! In one film, he has returned! And I mean that, in both his best, and worst ways.
There. Let’s get that out of the way. The clickbait-y intro that everyone is writing. “M. NIGHT IS BACK.”
But will he stay?
Split is M. Night’s newest foray into the world of cinema, and it is, truly & honestly, a strong return, especially given the absolute schlock and horrendously produced “films” he has made over the last 11 years (arguably 13 if you have issues with “The Village,” as I do). In Split, three girls are kidnapped by a man with multiple personality disorder. If you’re thinking that is the major “twist” that we have come to expect from a Shyamalan film, then you are wrong. The film takes many twists and turns as it continues, and fortunately for the audience, each step is dazzling, suspenseful, and intense. As the girls try to escape, we learn more and more about the troubled, yet sinister, man who has kidnapped them and holds them hostage, and what extent they must go to in order to escape.
This film is so expertly crafted. Despite a somewhat flawed script (which I’ll get to) it is a fantastic thriller, and acts as a tremendous homage to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and strangely enough, M. Night himself. Certain story tropes that M. Night had established in his earliest works come back to the playing table, namely the addition of uniquely woven hints and clues of what is to come throughout the story. The cinematography is top-notch, and begs for repeats viewings. M. Night freshly crewed up for this film, most notably with the visionary eye of cinematographer Mike Gioulakas, who recently filmed the horror-hit It Follows. Gioulakas brings an incredibly detailed, atmospheric, and slow-burning feel to every frame; truly, some of the best cinematography in M.Night’s filmography, and furthermore, some of the best I have seen recently in a horror/thriller. In the editing department is Luke Ciarrocchi. Ciarrocchi is a frequent M. Night collaborator, typically as an assistant editor, or even apprentice. But with Split, and last years The Visit, Ciarrocchi is at the helm, and quite frankly, I want to see more. His pacing of the film is so genuine and slow and precise – something that has been desperately missing from M. Night previous films, and it works completely in favor of Split.
Now, the absolute biggest positivity that this film should proudly boast is that of the two lead performers. James McAvoy delivers a borderline Oscar-contender performance (shocking, I know). He becomes completely immersed in a role that, had it been performed by a less-trained actor, could have come off as ridiculous, hokey, or worse, “Shyamalan-esque.” You know what I mean, right? Like, that kind of performance you can only get from Mark Wahlberg in The Happening or Will Smith in After-Earth. The character(s) that McAvoy embodies, as this individual suffering from multiple-personality disorder, are all so distinct, and carefully articulated through his performance. He demands your attention in every shot, and never releases you. And this is, oddly enough, a rarity in M. Night’s more recent work. It is reminiscent of quality from Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable, and Mel Gibson in Signs. I would even go as far as to argue McAvoy’s performance is somewhat better than the aforementioned performances; he not only has to convince you into believing each of these 23 personas, and that he suffers from them, but also make you question which one is at play at any given moment, or which new ones may be have been created.
The second lead is Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress who is beginning to gain notable attention in her climb up the Hollywood hierarchy. And with great reason. Anya Taylor-Joy first stepped into the spotlight with The Witch, in which she delivered a stellar performance compacted with subtly, and precise delivery of emotions. In Split, Taylor-Joy plays one of the kidnapped girls, and she is easily the most divisive of the bunch, carefully articulating what exact motions she should take to try and escape the clutches of McAvoy. As the story continues, and we learn more about her character through expertly-executed flashbacks, we learn just how destroyed her character really is, and what makes her the flawed protagonist that we want to root for. Her performance is stunning. Plain and simple. I eagerly await what future roles she pursues, and hopefully, they continue in quality.
By the way, I am trying my best to avoid spoilers, or even minor details, and ultimately I am left with a fairly vague review. Fortunately, there are some entertaining nuances to the story, so minor details become major puzzle pieces. But surprisingly enough, something this films does so well is show, not tell. This has been a trait that has been butchered in past M. Night films, and finally, he is starting to get a grasp on what exactly made his earlier work more notable. Show. Don’t tell.
Now, with that said, my biggest issue with the film comes at the ending. This film held my attention so tightly, that when the final moments hit, the final 5% of the film, I was severely disappointed. It’s hard to avoid spoilers, because the literal ending to this, had it been redacted (which it easily could have been), is something that people will no doubt be talking about. But it completely undermines what could have been a mostly stunning, original thriller. Shyamalan decides to toss in a certain reference, and it completely removed me from the “spell” of the film. I am not kidding when I say that this is an excellent thriller, something I was completely not expecting from M. Night. But what he is known for, his auteur trait if you will, is the ultimate twist. And it was terrible. Not terrible enough to warrant a severe negative reflection on the film as a whole (luckily), but certainly something that left me disappointed. I will leave it at that, I suppose.
My biggest fear with this film is that Shyamalan will return to being the “one-trick” pony again. He is a director that has had such promise, and he definitely exists better in a realm of lower-budget films, and more concise stories. His “twists” work better when we care about the simplicities of characters and setting, not the grand illusion of something more immense. I genuinely want him to be a better director, because he has such a passion for the medium, and has shown great originality in his earlier work. Split returns to that sensibility. M. Night is a caring artist when put under the correct circumstances, and I think the past few years of being stabbed left and right with his failing work has brought that sensibility back out of him. I look forward to what is next, but also greatly fear it… because that is what happened after his first three successes.
So yeah, M. Night is back. And hopefully, he has started to learn what makes him a stronger director, rather than what makes him the butt of jokes.
All in all, Split is a superb thriller. One that I want to go see again. It definitely marks a strong, valiant return of M. Night Shyamalan to the tropes and traits he had established early on in his career, and one might even feel, as I did, that this was the lost film from some alternate dimension in which M. Night remained a strong figure in the thriller genre. Despite a somewhat detestable ending, 95% of the film holds the audience tight and keeps them suspecting of what turn is to come. Superb performances, beautiful cinematography, and excellent editing make this a great film to check out.