Before we even deal with Split, let’s all just acknowledge that whatever opinion we have about M Night Shyamalan has probably calcified by now. For me, The Sixth Sense was an interesting curio with little replay value. But I found the subsequent duo of Unbreakable and Signs to be fairly brilliant, directorially speaking. Then came The Village, and this is when Shyamalan lost the plot. Whether it was the shadow of his previous successes, or the crushing weight of audience expectations (every film must have a twist!), the quality of his output declined sharply, and seemingly irrevocably. The Visit helped somewhat, but the found footage technique marred it as did the too-cutesy juvenile dialogue.
So, my calling Split Shyamalan’s best film since the early 2000s might not mean much, since it doesn’t seem too difficult to rise above the intervening material. But intentionally or not, it does feel like the return of the man who so deftly controlled the mood and suspenseful elements of Unbreakable and Signs. Shyamalan the director is back to form, if not Shyamalan the screenwriter.
The film begins at a birthday party for teenager Claire. She invited all of her friends, but felt forced to invite Eccentric Outcast Casey, too. The darn Social Media nowadays makes selective invitations all but impossible without hurting someone’s feelings. Casey is withdrawn, barely talks to anybody, and always seems to be in detention. Shyamalan conveys this information in the same self-aware, synthetic dialogue as The Visit. It’s not really how teenagers talk, but it’s exactly how a middle-aged Hollywood screenwriter might imagine they talk—so at least it seems to accurately reflect his point of view.
Unfortunately, right after the party, Claire, Casey, and another girl are abducted, eventually waking up in a locked, windowless bedroom. Now, you and they might expect that anyone going to the trouble of abducting three teenaged girls might be a bit touched. But this man, Kevin, takes the cake. He’s not just generally, homicidally insane, you see. He has 23 distinct personalities living inside of him. Many are quite harmless, but these are not the dominant ones. Sociopathic Dennis and Nurse Ratched protégé Patricia have overtaken all the others, viewing them as ineffectual. Most disturbing of all, there are rumours of a 24th personality lurking within Kevbo, called ‘The Beast,’ which may be more demon than human.
The danger with a role like Kevin is that his various identities could wind up seeming like the shallow personalities in a Saturday Night Live skit. But Shyamalan, for the most part, eschews treating these characters like an acting exercise; each one we see is well-thought out, with his (or her, in some cases) proper place in the narrative.
Of course, James McAvoy provides the heavy lifting for Kevin. To his credit, he’s largely successful at fleshing out each identity. It’s not simply a matter of mannerisms and accents. If you watch McAvoy’s eyes, he seems to give each personality an entirely different thought process. Split, for some viewers, will be worth seeing for McAvoy’s performance alone; I recommend it largely because of him.
For most of Split’s running time, Shyamalan manages to keep a creepy, suspenseful tone going; it really only falters in a few places. I, for one, eventually wanted to know why his psychiatrist thought Kevin was perfectly okay being on his own, given how disturbing and deceptive Dennis acted. I also thought the ending a bit too insistently set itself up for a sequel. None of this stops Split from being effectively creepy and entertaining. It’s top tier Shyamalan, whatever that’s worth to you—though your enjoyment may depend on how readily you can accept its outlandish premise.
At any rate, if we’re ranking Films Featuring Women Locked in Tiny Rooms, then The Collector > Split > Room. Fight me.
Follow me on Twitter — @GClarkFinfrock
Note to American parents:
We’ve known for a while that the MPAA makes some baffling decisions. Split features at least one graphic murder and other scenes of explicit violence, including cannibalism, some gore, pervasive disturbing imagery, an intense abduction scene, and references to child molestation. How this got away with a PG-13 rating is beyond me; it vies with Suicide Squad as the most violent PG-13 film I can recall. It has received a 15 certificate in the UK, and ‘R’ equivalents in at least a dozen other countries. It is, in the strongest possible terms, not for children or sensitive teenagers.