By Christian DiMartino
A good M. Night Shamylan movie has arrived in January. Now there’s a sentence I thought I’d never type.
There was a while there where going to an M. Night Shamylan movie was an event. Disregard his directorial debut, Wide Awake (have you seen it? Good). With The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs, Shamylan showed real talent. He even had something that should probably be trademarked: The Shamylan Twist.
But I’ll never forget that day. I was an 8 year old, excited to see The Village on its opening day (never said I was a normal 8 year old). And man, what a movie it was… for the first 75% of it. But that last 25%… the disappointment of it haunts me more than the movie does, and what followed Shamylan’s career (the incomprehensible Lady in the Water, the hysterical The Happening, the unspeakably awful The Last Airbender, and the deadly dull After Earth) knocked me off of the bandwagon.
Yet with 2015’s thoroughly entertaining The Visit and now with Split, Shamylan seems to have a bit of his mojo back. Split might not be up there with Signs, but yet it may be good enough to ignore the monstrosities that followed. Split takes ideas that Shamylan works well with, and he seems to be having a bit of fun with them. At the same time, he almost has some sort of character study on his hands, which is something not everyone will be expecting. Still waters run somewhat deep here.
The film opens on the birthday party of Claire (Haley Lu Richardson of The Edge of Seventeen). The scene focuses in on three girls: Claire, her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, excellent here and in last year’s The Witch), an outcast who Claire invited out of pity.
Claire’s dad offers to drive Casey home, but… things do not go according to plan. Dad is knocked out, and the three girls are captured by a man (James McAvoy) who gets in the car, and knocks them out as well. Soon, they awake in a basement. Well actually they don’t really know where they are, or really who took them. Because this man has 23 personalities.
We see a handful of them, such as Hedwig, a nine year old. And Patricia. And Barry, the aggressive kidnapper. There’s also Barry, a flamboyant lad who keeps reaching out to his psychiatrist (Betty Buckley) who specializes in his disorder. As much as Barry wants to reach out, well… his personalities get in the way. This isn’t the main focus though; that belongs to the girls, but more specifically, Claire. From the moment of their abduction, you begin to wonder just what causes Claire to become so… collected. Why is she taking this kidnapping so well? Is she in on it? You’ll see.
I don’t want to tell you too much. Because finally, audiences can attend a Shamylan outing without worry. Mind you, if you’re going into it expecting to be terrified, you might not get that. It is thrilling and gripping, but yet it also has a good sense of humor about itself. This however may not have been possible if not for the work of McAvoy.
I’ve been a McAvoy fan since… hell, I don’t even know. But I’ve seen him do great things, and always knew that if someone really gave him an opportunity to let it rip, he would.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that by the end of 2017, his performance here will be a distant memory. Which in all honesty is something of a shame, because what he does here truly is a tour de force. Whether he’s Patricia, or Barry, or especially Hedwig, he owns pretty much every moment. Yet what’s most interesting about his work here is that you never know which personality is going to appear at what moment, and that there adds a certain chill factor.
Split is actually hugely enjoyable for a while. For a while. The last half hour may lose some though. Some may definitely roll their eyes. Not moi. However, the last half hour does have me split a little down the middle. I admired the bonkers ballsiness of it. Yet while it is intense and… certainly different, there is no denying that I expected just a little more. It’s not quite monumentally disappointing like The Village, but it feels a little empty.
Ah, but if the last scene isn’t the most satisfying thing I’ve witnessed in a while. In a way, that final moment in Split is honestly something of a treat for those of us who have stayed with Shamylan through the good times and the godawful. In other words, it made a somewhat wobbly 30 minutes acceptable again.
Shamylan has just taken another step in the right direction. Hallelujah.