Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan is one of the few directors who has a brand, and one who’s seen that brand dragged through the mud. For awhile now, the name M. Night Shyamalan has been shorthand for shlocky genre pictures, his go-to favourite storytelling crutch—a third act twist that changes much that went before it—no defence against terrible reviews and audience ambivalence. That said, the filmmaker has persevered, continuing to make feature films in face of this public scorn. The legacy of The Sixth Sense, released 18 years ago, still carries enough weight to turn production lights green.
And now he’s got a genuine hit on his hands. It’s taken me awhile to catch up to Split, but I can report that while it’s not to the standard of his first few pictures, it’s a genuine step in the right direction.
James McAvoy is Barry. And Hedwig. And Dennis. And 20 more personalities. He’s a guy with Dissociative Identity Disorder, who when we meet him abducts three teenagers from a restaurant parking lot. They’re two popular girls, Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula), and one emo misfit, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who periodically (and entirely pointlessly) flashes back to her childhood spent hunting with her father and uncle. Now the three girls are in some industrial basement while we all struggle to figure out what Barry, Hedwig, Dennis, and the others have planned (Spoiler alert: It ain’t good.) and Casey does her best to play one personality off the others.
Meanwhile, one of the many has been emailing their therapist, Dr Fletcher (Betty Buckley), to make appointments that Barry (or is it Dennis?) has been regularly showing up for while downplaying their urgency.
All of this is less suspenseful and involving than Shyamalan thinks it is, even replete with stylish stairwell shots—we get it, you love Hitchcock—but what he does manage is to assemble his story elements and direct his actors to a point where the third act payoff delivers—in a straight ahead b-movie exploitation sort of way. It helps that McAvoy is going full theatre games with the voices, accents, and posture, though its Taylor-Joy whose limpid eyes hold the attention. I liked her in The Witch and Morgan, but this is her movie. She gives you all the sympathy you need to stay with the picture on its various detours.
And no, there isn’t a twist this time, not really. Not unless you count the very late revelation that Split is, in fact, a loose sequel to one of Shyamalan’s other films, part of the MNSCU—the M. Night Shyamalan Cinematic Universe. I’m OK with it, but I appreciate that Shyamalan, whatever he has planned for these characters in the future, doesn’t feel he needs to use the same storytelling tropes he has before. There’s enough meat here to keep you engaged anyway.
One last thing: D.I.D. is a real psychological condition, and the fact Shyamalan has used it in this context—manifesting in a dangerous individual with added supernatural shades—is nothing to be applauded. Sure, plenty of filmmakers have demonized some esoteric psychological malady in their tale of suspense and murder, including Hitchcock in Psycho, but that doesn’t make it OK in 2017.