‘Split’ paves the way for the long awaited M. Night Shyamalan “return to form” once thought to be a pipe-dream

I’ve said some…less than kind things about the canon of M. Night Shyamalan. I’ll admit it. I stand by them. To clarify, I have nothing against the man personally. But let’s be clear:

Signs – Watchable but not a good movie.

The Village – A promising start, all undone by uneven pacing and a weak twist.

The Lady in the Water – Misguided and completely forgettable.

The Happening – Utter garbage on almost every front.

The Last Airbender – Possibly the worst adaptation of ANYTHING I have ever seen, and the drop off point in terms of my Shyamalan viewing. (The more I read about the production however the less Shyamalan seems to be at fault in this instance.)

With exception of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, I don’t think Shyamalan has a single film to his credit I’d consider good. The vary on the scale of adequate to outright terrible. His first two aforementioned films however are so strong that there was always a tiny, rapidly dying flame I’ve carried that he’d at some point get his mojo back. Unbreakable in particular, an INCREDIBLY underrated superhero flick that was largely overshadowed by The Sixth Sense. 

From the offset, I wanted to write this one off too. To be frank, I probably would not have even given it a shot were the word-of-mouth not been as strong as it has been. 

And in this one, brief instance: that word-of-mouth had some solid validity to it. Having now seen the movie, I can say it’s easily the writer/director’s best in well over a decade and actually provides a glaring light of quality in a January typically designated as a dumping ground for studios.

Just to be clear: I’m going to avoid spoilers here. I’d normally say, fuck it. But we’re talking about an M. Night movie here. The man has built a career on his twists. While I’d argue the one in Split isn’t all that earth-shattering, particularly if you are well-versed in the man’s other films (HINT, HINT), I’ll still keep it an air of mystery as the rest of the internet appears to have done so.

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The plot: 

“After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.” – IMDb.com

The review: 

The film’s main strength, as is the case with many I find, is its relentless likability achieved by just how bonkers it dares to go. For my money, Split is the campiest, funniest movie Shyamalan has ever gone and the movie is only made better for it. It’s really impressive as the movie walks a very, VERY fine tight-rope between

It’s also the first in well over a decade to play to its writer/director’s main strengths. An oxymoron to be sure. Similar to Sense and Unbreakable, the film operates on a relatively low budget but what it lacks in fund it more than makes up with  with in sheer confidence. I didn’t see The Visit, but from what I gather it is similar in that it represents M. Night getting “back-to-basics.”

It goes a step further by waving away the overly-somber atmosphere of those earlier two films. Don’t get me wrong. There are some heavy things are work here with child abuse only being the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but the movie never really loses sight of how goofy its initial premise is and at the very center is a complex, wacky, layered performance from James McAvoy.

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Without an actor like McAvoy, someone really unafraid to commit while also dedicate the time to making each personality distinct, the movie would have crashed and burned like so many others in  Shyamalan’s canon. Films, by their very nature, are collaborative in nature. One thing goes wrong, it could spell disaster for the entire production. Now, I understand this is incredibly obvious but I only say it to make a point. This movie stands on the shoulders of McAvoy and his success is its success. There’s just no way around that.

Is his performance(s) Oscar-worthy? I don’t think I’d commit to that necessarily, but it is a performance worth commending and dissecting. We don’t see all 24 personalities that make up Kevin, but the 4 or 5 that are showcased are fully-developed, understandable characters. Much more than any that appeared in Rouge One. You get a feel for who these characters are through tiny, at-times exaggerated, non-verbal actions rather than extended, monotonous monologues explaining who they are.

It should also be noted that the movie is gorgeous. Shyamalan recruits It Follows cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who allows scenes to simply play out in extended, single-take shots. I had forgotten how good Shyamalan is at establishing tension and simply allowing it to play. He’s finally teamed with a cinematographer with a natural gift for it as well with the results being tiny wonders and a testament to the “less is more” approach to horror.

The movie has more than its fair share of issues. For one, I’m not sure all three aspects of the story gelled all that cohesively. We get Kevin’s adventure with his three-kidnapped victims as well as his interactions with his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is not convinced everything is fine with her most fascinating patient. We also get flashbacks regarding a nightmarish hunting trip taken by one of the three girls Kevin has kidnapped, played by The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy. I don’t know. On the whole, all three narratives are fine but I feel like there could have been some trimming, particularly to the overly gratuitous flashbacks, and the film would not have lost all that much. To speak anymore on it however would be trimming the border of spoiler territory however.

I will say that the flashbacks really hammer home the themes of trauma and mental illness that I think Shyamalan is going for (much as he did in The Sixth Sense), and for that it gets a pass if only for being well-intended. I just feel as if there was a way to convey the information we get from them as subtly as we learn about each of Kevin’s personalities.

Another case could be made that the other two girls in Kevin’s clutches (played by Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula respectively) are largely pointless. I argue however their purpose is supported by their final fate in the film, but once again…

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So, there you have it. Split is by no means a classic, but it represents something that warrants discussion and that is a hopeful return to form for a director that is long in need of one. It’s a movie that unabashed trashy, all while being much smarter than it initially lets on. In other words, my favorite kind of genre-movie.

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