Once upon a time, in 1999, a remarkable, astounding, amazing film called The Sixth Sense came out and blew the collective minds of the world. The director was a wunderkind named M. Night Shaymalan. Night followed The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable, which did not get near the critical acclaim and box office The Sixth Sense did, but nothing was going to do that. His first film turned into a global phenomenon. Unbreakable is, in many ways, heavily influential to the grounded reality of the tack comic book movies took when that era began around the same time. Night’s third film, Signs, did a little better than Unbreakable, but isn’t half the film. Then came the fall. Horrible film after horrible film after horrible film followed Signs. Studios would still throw $100 million budgets at him hoping that he could turn it around, but things digressed to the point where his name was such an audience deterrent that it was removed from promotional posters. I have been reluctant to pay money and go to the theater to see Split. The film, made for only $9 million, won the box office three weeks in a row, generated great word-of-mouth, so I finally gave in and went and saw my first M. Night Shaymalan film in the theater since The Village (aka THE BEGINNING OF THE FALL). So is he back? I think he just might be. Split is no home run, but it’s only a little below Signs in his canon and, like his best films, the ending was not only a mind-blower, it promises an exciting future.
I have to bring us back down to Earth here: this is not a brilliant film. It’s an average suspense thriller with two fantastic performances that elevate a script that’s MUCH better than recent Shaymalan scripts, but would be nothing without James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. Where I do see big improvement though is in Shaymalan’s directing. He’s stripped down and focused on what made his early films so good: his natural ability to create suspense through the tiniest of things. Night doesn’t really go for GOTCHA moments (there are exceptions) in his better films, when he’s on, he follows the lead of his idol Alfred Hitchcock and builds a steady tension to hook his audience. Also like Hitchcock, he is still inserting himself in his films and while Hitch’s cameos were almost a “Where’s Waldo?” affair, Night can’t help but always give himself a small role and it’s distracting.
The economy of storytelling is admirable in Split. We get right into it. Three teenage girls are kidnapped from a mall parking lot by James McAvoy’s character who imprisons them in an unknown location. The girls soon realize their captor is a whooooole lot of people walking around in Professor Xavier’s body. Through exposition and sessions with McAvoy’s character’s psychiatrist, we learn that he has Dissociative Identity Disorder (or what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder). DID is a controversial diagnosis in psychiatry, and many don’t think it’s real. McAvoy’s psychiatrist is one of the leading advocates of its existence and has identified 23 separate personalities living in this man’s mind. Her professional excitement blinds her to some of the more radical agendas of the group or that they may be in the driver’s seat. Their sessions are intercut with McAvoy’s (He has 25 character names so I can’t pick one to refer to him as) interaction with the girls.
Two of the girls are clearly ill-equipped for this sort of situation (only a damaged person really would be), so they’re fortunate that Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) is extremely damaged and recognizes the nature of their situation quickly. Taylor-Joy was in last year’s awful The Witch and I found her striking, but she was working with a crap film; here she shows serious talent and along with the success of this film, I think she may be a breakout star. However, nothing about this film would work in any way, shape, or form without James McAvoy.
McAvoy not only has to embody over two dozen personalities in one character; he has to make them make sense within the rules that his mind has established. The personalities are all different ages, genders, personality types, and the emerging 24th personality is an entirely different thing altogether. He does an absolutely superb job juggling all this. Sometimes he’s got multiples going at the same time and that’s just nuts. McAvoy doesn’t get enough credit for how talented he is and this was a total showcase of his range.
Now the dilemma…..I REALLY WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE LAST SCENE. But I’m not going to be that guy. Maybe we can make it a “comments only” discussion topic, but it got me very excited for where it looks like we’re going next. Split isn’t near Night’s early masterpieces, but it’s a hopeful sign that he may get back there and film fans had all but given up hope of that ever happening.