Director M. Night Shyamalan gets a lot of crap, and rightfully so. Until his most recent outing, Split, he hadn’t made a good movie in more than a decade. After Earth was bad. The Happening was so bad that it was funny. The Last Airbender was so far down the scale of badness that it was no longer eligible to be funny. Watching any of those projects, though, you can tell that Shyamalan’s heart wasn’t really in it.
When he actually tries, Shyamalan is a superb director. His best films (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and the first two-thirds of Signs) are littered with symbolism and themes, crafted with remarkable attention to detail and deeply rooted in the emotions of the characters and the hardships through which they’ve been. They also look great and sound great. Split is a long-awaited return to form that showcases all of M. Night’s strengths.
I was sold on the film’s premise alone. Three girls are kidnapped by a man (James McAvoy) with dissociative identity disorder — the presence of multiple distinct personality states within the same body. In this case, 23. The man, Kevin, seems to be holding them hostage in preparation for some ritual. The movie shifts us back and forth between the girls attempting to escape by taking advantage of Kevin’s different personalities and Kevin visiting his therapist, Dr. Fletcher, as she begins to realize that he is on the verge of a breakdown. One of the most entertaining aspects of the viewing experience was getting introduced to Kevin’s eccentric personalities, one by one, so I won’t spoil any of them for you.
If Split is the Houston Rockets, then McAvoy is James Harden. The premise is unique and the supporting cast is strong, but the whole film would fall apart without his performance. He is nothing short of brilliant in every scene. His portrayals of Kevin’s different personalities are so distinct that we’re never confused which one takes center stage in a scene, even if his clothing doesn’t match the personality. At times he is creepy, at times he is flat-out terrifying, at times he is laugh-out-loud hysterical and, at just the right moments, he evokes sympathy for his character. It’s early in the calendar year to make this claim, but McAvoy is Oscar-worthy.
Fans of Shyamalan’s early work will feel giddy watching Split. He maintains near-constant tension throughout, and does so without the use of gore or cheap jump scares. While McAvoy alone can make the movie entertaining, the combination of claustrophobic close-ups, eerie lighting, perfect sound design and a solid score from Dylan West Thornton keep the proceedings engrossing, even when the pacing slightly falters.
Split also makes effective use of Shyamalan’s ability to reveal information gradually over the course of the film. He’s good at this. (In The Sixth Sense, for example, we don’t learn Cole’s secret until the 50-minute mark.) One of the three kidnapped girls (Anya Taylor-Joy) has a backstory that informs her character’s decisions and it is effectively told through regular flashbacks. During the second act, we also learn what two of Kevin’s personalities are conspiring to accomplish, adding another layer of anticipation. The film keeps us guessing and patient viewers will be rewarded in the third act, when the themes and storylines come together nicely.
Speaking of the third act, Shyamalan is famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for ending all of his movies with twists. To call the surprise at the end of Split merely a “twist” would actually be diminishing the cleverness of what Shyamalan does. Rather than introducing a new plot point or changing any of the previously established ones, he simply swaps out the lense through which we view these plot points. It pisses me off that I can’t talk about it more here, but it’s genius. Oh, and don’t go looking for it as you watch the movie, because it’s not the kind of thing you can figure out ahead of time. Trust me.
Split boasts the well-earned suspense, technical-mastery and thought-provoking ideas that marked Shyamalan’s early career. These virtues, however, come in a package deal with the typical M. Night mishaps: some sloppily-written dialogue, illogical decision-making by characters and not-so-subtle delivery of themes. But you take the good with the bad, because the good is really freaking good. That’s true of Shyamalan’s career as a whole. Sure, make fun of the guy for his several misguided efforts, but would you prefer a director who makes nine mediocre movies or one who makes five piles of garbage and four films that you can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve watched them?
Lev Akabas is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.