Story over Spectacle
One of the few things more beguiling than an M. Night Shaymalan movie when the writer/director is at the top of his game, is the direction his career has taken over the last decade or so. He launched to meteoric heights back in the late 1990s and early 2000s with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. Hey, I’ll even apologize all day long for his The Village.
Then over the subsequent decade, his empire crumbled in the worst of ways with a steady string of stinkers that still has our heads spinning in disbelief at what happened. Lady in the Water, The Last Airbender, After Earth, anybody? Anybody? Yet the industry stayed behind him with one of the longest leashes in Hollywood history, hoping that his once-shining star would rise again.
Well, the wait has paid off with Shyamalan’s biggest twist yet; a film that is at the same time both weird and wonderful with many of the things that make an M. Night film so enjoyable. That’s right (with all apologies to The Visit in 2015), M. Night Shyamalan’s career is back on track with Split, a horror/thriller that feels much bigger in both story and atmosphere than its relatively minuscule budget might indicate.
James McAvoy turns in a virtuoso performance as Kevin, a deranged kidnapper who apprehends three young women from a shopping mall parking lot. He then takes them to what appears to be some kind of abandoned warehouse and locks them up in a small room. What his intentions are with the women aren’t made immediately clear, but we soon learn that Kevin is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, or split personality. He has 24 of them in all, but we get to meet four in particular: Dennis, the dominant personality; wanna-be fashion designer, Barry; Hedwig, a 10-year-old lover of hip-hop music; and British socialite, Patricia.
McAvoy is near brilliant and basically elevates the entire experience as he slips in and out of his characters with a mesmerizing mastery. He and Shyamalan work wonderfully together with a slow burn pacing that eventually melts down into a festering goo of psychotic madness as our heroine captives must find a way to work with each of Kevin’s personalities to attempt an escape.
Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) stands out from the trio of hostages as Casey, a shy, anti-social girl who is still recovering from a traumatizing childhood event of her own. Shyamalan explores her background with a framing device that unfolds alongside the main story. The terror of their situation is reflected in her eyes as she breaks down their problem to find a solution, rather than succumb to the crushing fears that surround them. She is the perfect foil to Kevin as she plays silly games with Hedwig, stands firm against Patricia, and antagonizes Dennis, with hopes of finding a way out of their predicament.
It’s not really surprising that Split works as well as it does. With a budget of just $5 million, Shyamalan is forced back into his old ways of story over spectacle. Free from the expectations of splendor, spectacle, and huge box office returns, Shyamalan leans on dialogue, characters, atmosphere, and mood to tell his story. And he’s a better filmmaker because of it. Nearly the entire film takes place in an underground bunker with dank, dingy corridors and rust-stained walls that seem to get narrower and narrower as the story unfolds. Plot, character, and environment all begin to close in with an extremely claustrophobic tension as the film’s climax nears.
Speaking of the climax, any fans the director still has will appreciate a closing scene that hints at a much larger Shyamalan full-circle universe and is most certainly meant as a knowing nod by the director himself that the old M. Night Shyamalan is back.
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated “PG-13” for disturbing thematic content, bloody violence and sme language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.