- Night Shyamalan has stalled an almost decade-long descent into the hallowed notoriety of “washed-up-garbage-no-talent movie man” by making a movie that wasn’t awful. Split, which stars James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy, is a gripping and tense horror film that delivers on its promises and doesn’t let itself get too weighed down by Shyamalan’s usual schlock and decision making.
In contrast to some of his past projects such as The Last Airbender, the meat and potatoes of filmmaking (like shot composition and editing) are carried out with veteran skill. While not too ambitious or out of the box, the production is serviceable and held back enough to not distract from the real draw of the film: James McAvoy.
I won’t give too much away but the premise of the film revolves around the character Kevin, played by James McAvoy, who lives with dissociative identity disorder (DID); over 23 identities and people share control of his body. He describes it as a room with everyone sitting in their chairs waiting for their turn in control, their time “in the light.” Among them are the extroverted fashion designer Barry who typically oversees who gets time in the light, the young Hedwig, intense and troubled Dennis, and strict Patricia. With each personality his physical body and attributes change, be it in strength or even the need for insulin (one of his personalities has diabetes, the others don’t).
Trouble starts when a few of the less-than benevolent personalities band together to take control, kidnapping three teens including the main protagonist, Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young girl with a traumatic past. As the girls try to escape and negotiate with Dennis’ personalities, his trusted psychologist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) tries to understand his increasingly erratic behaviour. She believes her patients are not suffering from an illness, but are rather brilliant and important examples of what the future holds. She talks about a blind patient she had who suffered from DID who healed her own optic nerves when some of her personalities were uncovered that believed they could see. They are special, but she knows it is a tough life to live and that not all of Kevin’s personalities share the same values and goals. Many critics have come out against the film as stigmatizing mental illness; my only response is that you have to watch it through the same lens with which you would approach sci-fi or superhero films. If pressed I might offhandedly tell you to “chill,” thus diminishing and marginalizing your complaints. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
The slogs in the film are typical Shyamalan weaknesses: a distracting and unnecessary cameo (although for the record I thought his appearance in Signs was pretty good), and wooden, even occasionally painful dialogue (chicken wings or the history lessons take the cake, you’ll know them when you see them). Yet Shyamalan avoids his incessant need for a twist, and lets his actors carry their scenes and explore their characters. Watching McAvoy morph between characters is a delight, whether it’s played for laughs (of which there are a few) or intense drama.
I hope this is a start of a Shyma-renaissance; I’ve been a huge fan of some of his earlier films and while I won’t ever forgive what he did to the The Last Airbender franchise, I think having his vision and talent out there can only help filmmaking.