There are moments in Split, a film that may very well represent the resurrection of the M. Night brand, when it seems as if that early cinematic gusto that we so loved about M. Night's The Sixth Sense and other early films has returned.
We glimpsed it in his last film, The Visit, a low-budget Blumhouse Productions spectacle that was simultaneously flawed yet immensely entertaining and placed Shyamalan back into the realm of marketability. It was as if the constraints that come with lower budget demanded that M. Night focus his energies and not so much indulge his cinematic quirks.
The Visit wasn't perfect but it was, well, good. Maybe even more importantly for M. Night's faltering career, it was also profitable. REALLY profitable. The $5 million The Visit snagged just under $100 million at the box-office - M. Night's mojo, just maybe, was back.
Split isn't a perfect film but it is, well, a good film. M. Night once again partners up with Blumhouse and once again serves up winning results with a film that hints at, but never quite lives up to, those glimpses of cinematic greatness that pop up throughout the film.
The truth is that M. Night Shyamalan has never been a huge box-office gamble. He's made and/or written 13 feature films, including Split, and 10 have turned a profit with only Lady in the Water's slightly positive margin likely not recouping the accompanying marketing expenses. While M. Night may have not been living up to his early critical acclaim, until the ridiculous debacle that was After Earth Hollywood was willing to gamble on the guy.
M. Night is kind of like the Al Pacino of filmmaking, an immensely talented guy whose talent is best realized alongside a focused and disciplined team. Left to his own devices, M. Night Shyamalan trusts instincts that shouldn't be trusted and takes a kitchen sink approach to filmmaking that can prove disastrous.
Split finds M. Night in solid form, the reins unleashed perhaps a little too much and allowing what could have easily been a 90-100-minute film to bloat into a 117-minute film. But still, Split works in all the ways that audiences will want it to work while many film critics and horror/thriller devotees will complain unnecessarily about all the things that go wrong here. There's an awful lot that goes right here.
Split offers an absolute sublime role for James McAvoy, that British actor most known these days as Professor X, as Kevin, a highly traumatized young man with a complex case of Dissociative Identity Disorder who, in the film's truly gusto opening sequence, takes possession of Casey (The Witch's remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula) and holds them captive inside a bunker-like basement with little hope of escape.
Of course, the trio believes there is hope of escape. They hear the voices. They hear the voices of Barry and Hedwig and Dennis and Patricia.
But, of course, we know that there is something more.
Split attracted early negative attention from the disability community out of a concern for the way in which the film portrays mental illness, most specifically, Dissociative Identity Disorder. Not surprisingly given the state of protest in this country, much of these concerns were shared despite not having yet seen the film.
While the concern is understandable, Split is unworthy of such protest. M. Night, for all of his over-indulgent tendencies, has crafted a character, I suppose I should say characters, with such an intricate complexity that it would be impossible to reduce Kevin to such a mental health stereotype. Similarly McAvoy, an actor with tremendous sensitivity and insight, has a long history of portraying not just the caricature but the full-on broad spectrum of disability in films ranging from the X-Men films to Rory O'Shea Was Here to Inside I'm Dancing and others. While one can argue, and should argue, for the inclusion of actual actors with disabilities in this roles, given the reality McAvoy has consistently redeemed himself quite nicely.
The same is true here. McAvoy gives an award-worthy performance as Kevin, et al, embodying not just the inherent menace and danger within the character(s) but also their woundedness, their vulnerabilities and their complex humanity. It's a remarkable and dramatically resonant performance that avoids caricature and histrionics.
Those familiar with M. Night's work will recognize Split for the way it manifests his other works, Kevin existing as a Village unto himself and Shyamalan's other films popping up other occasionally subtle and occasionally painfully obvious and unnecessary ways. M. Night's ability to twist audience perception is on full display here, the identities within Kevin able to toy with one another, but not necessarily Kevin, while Taylor-Joy's Casey must become master manipulator if she is to help herself and the others survive. Taylor-Joy proves that her own award-worthy turn in The Witch was not a fluke.
Split, while over-indulgent at 117 minutes and prone to fits of tedium and condescending explanation, is a genuinely suspenseful and deliriously entertaining effort with McAvoy's performance alone making the film worth the price of admission. Scenes with Kevin's psychologist, played with not so subtle hints of narcissism and self-adoration by Betty Buckley, are almost wholly unnecessary and the film's childhood flashback scenes may build an understanding of Kevin but are far too rudimentary in presentation to truly be effective. These modest quibbles, while important, don't derail one of 2017's most perversely pleasant surprises, yet another low-budget effort from M. Night Shyamalan and Blumhouse Productions that is practically guaranteed to be another box-office winner for the director that everyone loves to hate but who may have found his perfect production house home with Blumhouse.
In many ways, Split is a B-movie masquerading as a Hollywood production and Shyamalan nails that tone to near perfection with moments of genuine horror, dark humor and campy delight all rolled into one more Kevin we really need to talk about.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic