In 2015, Shyamalan went back to his low-budget horror roots with The Visit. It was his best-received film for quite some time, and left people hoping that he was on his way to a comeback. Split is the next stage of his directorial rehabilitation, and stars James McAvoy as Kevin, a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and whose mind plays host to 23 separate personalities. After kidnapping three young girls, they must work out how to navigate his fractured psyche and escape their captivity before the 24th personality; ‘The Beast’ is unleashed.
Echoing the frenzied nature of its protagonist, Split is a film that is wildly uneven in tone. Dealing with mental disorders, abduction and even sexual abuse, the film contains concepts that are far too heavy for it to be a fun horror romp. However, the film is also too campy and ridiculous to be taken seriously.
For most of the film it uncomfortably straddles the inherent threat of the situation at hand, with McAvoy’s deliriously unhinged performance. In the rare moments where the film manages to pull this balancing act off, it’s superb. Most notably in a scene where one of Kevin’s personalities dances to Kanye West, which is simultaneously hilarious and chilling.
However, at best the film’s well-intentioned message about abuse, which also serves as a subversion of horror-movie tropes, is undermined by the film’s pulpy preposterousness. At worst, the film is an offensive misjudgment.
Split has already inspired some critical and thoughtful think pieces about the ways in which horror cinema exploits mental illness. Being charitable to Shyamalan it is clear where his heart lies and that it enters a well-established genre of horror that has produced some of cinema’s, and even literature’s finest works. However, his usage of a real disorder is clumsily handled and some could find the third act offensively stupid even disregarding issues of representation.
Putting to one side the film’s problematic tone, Split is evidence that as far as filmmaking talent goes, M. Night Shyamalan never went away. The film is beautifully directed and there are many sequences which Shyamalan oozes maximum tension out of. This is recognizably the work of the man who made The Sixth Sense and Signs.
However, what this film is worth seeing for alone are the performances. James McAvoy is clearly having the time of his life as his character allows him to essentially give 9 different performances. (We don’t get to see all 24 personalities) As Patricia he is chillingly authoritative, whilst as Barry he is a campy delight and as Hedwig exudes a dangerous delirium as well as an almost heartening vulnerability. Sometimes he’s fantastic and at other times he is awful. Nevertheless, what it is throughout is a thoroughly committed and utterly compelling performance.
Whilst McAvoy may be doing the most acting, it is actually Anya Taylor-Joy who does the best acting. A horror movie darling after starring in last year’s The Witch, Taylor-Joy is arguably the film’s true lead performance. Her character is mysteriously calm in the face of adversity and seems to know how and when to challenge their captor.
The reason for this is eventually teased out in flashback sequences, which build-up to something incredibly powerful and unsettling, and unlike the rest of the film, does so subtly. Shyamalan relies heavily on her performance to convey so much of the film’s thematic and emotional resonance. She is up to the task though, giving a powerfully restrained and layered performance.
However, it is the final few seconds of this film that have dominated a lot of the discussion. It is a surprising ending that represents an undeniably impressive achievement, and is a brave move on Shyamalan’s part. That being said, like Marvel post-credit scenes, it will be utterly impenetrable for around 90% of mainstream audiences.
Nevertheless, it’s Shyamalan’s best twist since The Sixth Sense and a real reward for fans of his who have stuck by him over the years. For the people who get it, it’s going to be hard for any other moment in cinema this year to top it. For those who don’t, then it’ll be the icing on the third act’s bewildering cake.
Whether M. Night Shyamalan is really ‘back’ or not is up for debate. However, one thing is undeniable. Where he had become depressingly predictable, he has once again found a way to surprise us.
Movie Parliament Rating: MINORITY GOVERNMENT
By Movie Parliament Prime Minister,
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