An incredible performance by James McAvoy and unexpectantly brilliant storytelling by M. Night Shyamalan makes Split the first must-see film of 2017.
The Shyamalan plot twist has earned its spot as one of film’s most notorious techniques associated with a singular filmmaker or franchise. Like the Hitchcockian McGuffin, Tarantino’s unrelenting violence, or even Marvel Studio’s post-credit scenes, they all serve a purpose. For Shyamalan, his plot twist is a way to surprise his audience and allow a new perspective for them to consider upon walking out of the theater. It was a perfect fit for thrillers with horror tendencies, especially given the way that Shyamalan strictly structured his stories and characters to deliver that end goal. However, once he started making other types of films, his style didn’t seem to fit too well. Suddenly, his approach felt heavy-handed, clumsy, and ultimately extraneous. The once-promising filmmaker fell from grace, and his most lasting trademark became a relic of a bygone era.
Happily, I’m here to tell you that M. Night Shyamalan has returned from the brink of insignificance. No, he hasn’t suddenly found a way to make his style work in another genre. Instead, he has returned to the genre and style of film that made him famous in the first place. Split is a horror thriller, and it is a welcome return to form for the man whose career seemed to be in a downward spiral until late. Shyamalan is back to what he does best, and for those of us who can appreciate a good thriller, we may not have realized how much we missed him in the interim.
For his newest film, Shyamalan starts with a psychological horror type premise that has fared so well over the years. Here, the plot focuses on a man named Kevin who is inflicted with dissociative identity disorder. He struggles with 23 unique personalities, all of which have different needs and desires to the point that conflict is invoked. Kevin is in the care of a psychologist, Dr. Fletcher, who is trying to keep him functioning, but is also interested in his potential. Her experience has shown that people with DID not only exhibit the traits of multiple personalities, but the chemistry of their bodies changes for each unique identity. To Dr. Fletcher, Kevin is more than just human. Kevin’s internal anguish causes a radical personality to take over, resulting in the kidnapping of three teenage girls. As they struggle to stay alive in confinement, Kevin’s identities are in a similar struggle to stop him before it is too late.
Split is one of those films that relies heavily on a single performance, and McAvoy doesn’t disappoint. Playing a single character in a psychological thriller is difficult enough, but showcasing unique traits amongst several identities is a challenge to say the least. Fortunately, McAvoy is up to the task and provides one of his most entertaining and interesting performances in his career. The film works mainly because McAvoy is able to evoke both the fear and sorrow that is necessary to view Kevin’s character in the light afforded by the script. A lesser performance would have come off as a novelty act, played for the simple entertainment of making faces and voices rather than the complexity associated with several real personalities living in a singular body. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the main character, Casey Cook who is one of the captives. Cook makes for a character that is almost as interesting as McAvoy’s because there is a sense of mystery and darkness about her. Taylor-Joy continues to show that she is one of the most talented young actresses in film these days. Betty Buckley plays Dr. Fletcher, and also shines in that role.
Having established this central complexity of a singular character, Shyamalan can then build his story outwards on that foundation. The film takes on a fascinating two-throned approach to build suspense and lead towards a tense climax. On one hand there is Kevin and his unique disorder. Half of the film is spent diving deeper into how he lives and the reasoning behind his dark transformation. Dr. Fletcher gives context to his needs and behaviors. She also has a fascination and curiosity that makes the character more than just a typical deranged antagonist. The other half of the film is from his captive’s perspective. They are trying to escape while also dealing with the particular situation that Kevin’s conflicting personalities presents to them. They are confused, conflicted, and ultimately afraid. With these two perspectives, Shyamalan’s film lives up to its title. We are fascinated and disgusted at the same time. There’s comedy and tragedy simultaneously. Should we feel sorry for Kevin, or is his behavior as inadmissible as it seems?
Shyamalan’s writing has always felt a little stiff and structured. At times it can be a bit distracting. Character’s feel a bit stilted rather than natural in their dialogue. However, Split is a complicated film, and without the dialogue being as focused as it is, I don’t think it would have been as effective. The dialogue is never boring, and at times it is unexpectedly hilarious. It may seem inappropriate to inject such humor in a deathly serious film, but it works. The humor helps to add that extra layer of psychological torment. It becomes part of the puzzle that the audience has to solve. It also adds a sense of humanity to the story.
As director, Shyamalan shows his experience in the genre. For one, the story is not told in a straightforward manner. He uses sessions with Kevin and Dr. Fletcher to fill in Kevin’s background, while using flashbacks to provide context to Casey’s story. The cuts between the two “halves” of the film is seamless, and Shyamalan structures it so that one side of the story adds context and emotion to the other. Furthermore, although there is a lot going on, the story never feels overly complicated or excessive. Shyamalan is able to streamline his presentation down to the basic elements needed for any good horror film. He gives us characters that are all wildcards, and this uncertainty leads to an unpredictability. Even if the film isn’t downright scary, it is effective and thrilling. Nor does Shyamalan resort to excessive violence or action to keep things entertaining. The story of the characters and their interactions is impressive and interesting enough to keep you at the edge of your seat.
And then comes the matter of Shyamalan's famous twist. I will only say simply that Split has a great ending that is worth your efforts not to spoil before seeing the film. Shyamalan has finally given us a complete film that echoes all of the good things from his most beloved films. In this manner, the film itself may seem a bit expected, even if the story and its characters are full of terrific surprises. Any other director who returned to familiar ground may have been accused of sticking too close to familiar territory where success has been proven. Shyamalan is such an interesting storyteller that even though he has returned to the genre that he first found widespread success in, it remains a great fit for his talents. Modern horror these days is too often reliant on easy shock moments and aggressive tones. Split is a welcome return to a more sophisticated, twisted realm with every detail masterfully crafted to yield a more substantial ending that is full of potential. The greatest praise I can bestow upon a filmmaker is that upon the conclusion of their film I want to see more from them. Shyamalan has earned this praise with Split.
What's Bad: Dialogue feels stiff at times, a bit heavy handed, not the scariest film you'll see this year.