Split: M. Night Shyamalan Returns To Form

Fear is suffocating.  To wake up, dazed and unknowing, in a dank, windowless, unfamiliar room, the only point of recall a heavy mist of inhalant with the sole purpose to get us to this point.  As the memory fog begins to lift, and the frightful recollection of the strange man who stole you from your normal life comes clearer, the dread and the panic start to set in.  You are trapped.  Welcome to the reawakening of maligned director M. Night Shyamalan.  Welcome to Split.

It probably needs to be said; I have a rather “split” appreciation for Shyamalan.  I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and am passively entertained by Signs and The Village.  But then, Shyamalan started to go a bit off the rails.  Lady in the Water was uninspiring, and The Happening was borderline unforgivable.  To go from one of the most masterful twist endings (Sixth Sense) to Marky Mark telling me that the grass and trees are conspiring against me broke my thriller movie loving heart.  And don’t even ask me how he got funding for a project after the abomination that was After Earth.  But, like a bad relationship I just can’t quit, there I was watching Split.  And everything I originally liked about M. Night Shyamalan came rushing back.  This is where he belongs; smaller world, condensed storytelling, a place in which he can utilize his deft, up close visual style.  A place to confine his narrative in a much more personal way.  And no angry trees.

Even though this film is smaller in scope to some of Shyamalan’s more recent work, the story still manages to tread into larger and interesting places.  Kevin (James McAvoy) suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (because apparently Multiple Personality Disorder needed a new name), wherein the personalities of twenty three others roam within the confines of his brain.  Only a handful surface for our purposes here; the dominant, particular Dennis, the proper, soothing Patricia, the 9-year old, playful Hedwig, and the semi-flamboyant fashionista, Barry.  These appear to be the most dominant personas of Kevin that jockey for first chair position through most of the film, but there is the threat of a yet unseen twenty fourth personality that lingers.

Shyamalan wastes no time getting to the meat of the story.  Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) leaves a teen birthday party with two friends (we’ll call them friends, but because Claire is such a distant presence socially, acquaintances is probably more apropos), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marsha (Jessica Sula).  The girls are quickly rendered unconscious by the personality of “Dennis” and taken away.  When the three wake up in a drab, square room (with an oddly pleasant bathroom), disoriented and scared, Shyamalan begins to peel the layers back on the mysterious kidnapper and his psychological struggle.

A lot of the film is standard, “held in captivity” fare, in which the girls conspire and attempt various means of escape to little effect, but the demeanor of Casey; calculated, thoughtful, almost attempting to beat the villain at his own game, opens up for discussion what Shyamalan was trying to do here.  Flashbacks to Casey’s childhood are peppered throughout the film, and we learn that she is also psychologically damaged.  Is there a subtext here indicating that only the damaged can understand the damaged?  It’s clear that Casey and Kevin come from similar abusive backgrounds, and while they clearly have landed in different areas of mental strife, they are in many ways kindred spirits.

Just when the film starts to get claustrophobic, Shyamalan pulls away to asides with “Barry”, as he visits his psychologist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Within these scenes, the internal struggle that Kevin endures begins to reveal itself.  Dr Fletcher notices the nuances in “Barry’s” behavior, indicating some of Kevin’s personas are exerting dominance over others, and the threat of that aforementioned twenty-fourth persona, heretofore known as “the Beast” becomes more distinct.  I have to admit, the concept of “the Beast” was something that didn’t really connect for me.  I feel like Shyamalan couldn’t resist the urge to shoehorn a supernatural element into the story, and I’m not really convinced it was necessary nor effective.  For all of the intriguing dialogue to be had about mental illness, and the tension built around the peril the girls were in, something got lost once “the Beast” arc really took center stage, and I don’t think he completely stuck the landing.

Add Taylor-Joy to your “ones to watch” list.  Her turn in The Witch in early 2016 was a revelation, but here she shows a different style of nuance as the tactical, careful Casey.  Richardson and Sula are fine in their roles, but ultimately serve as wooden indians.  But let’s cut to the chase.  James McAvoy is on another level here.  His portrayal of the many faces of Kevin chews up scenes that would make Nicholas Cage bow in unworthiness.  He is diabolical, disturbing, and outright impossible to ignore.  I dare say it’s his best work to date.

Absent was the big twist to the plot, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a shock ending that will be sure to please Shyamalan fans.  In the end, I had a great time with Split.  It’s a return to form for Shyamalan, and I want to see him continue to play in this sandbox.  It’s an indication that he has matured as a storyteller.  Perhaps we can chalk up his unfortunate foray into big budget fare to ego, or the need to sow his wild oats on a grander scale.  Whatever the reason, here’s to hoping he has settled down.  Here’s to hoping he has identified that one personality that suits him best.  We’ll all be better off for it.

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STEVE CLIFTON has been writing moderately well on the Internet at this blog, Popcorn Confessional, for the better part of the last decade.  His love for movies can be traced back to the North Park Cinema in Buffalo, NY circa 1972, when his aunt took him to see Dumbo.  Now living in Maine, Steve routinely consumes as much film, television, and books as time will allow.  He also finds time to complain about winter and Buffalo sports teams.  He is a big fan of bad horror films and guacamole, and mildly amused by pandas.

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