Split continues the fascinating trend charting M. Night Shyamalan’s transition from self-important, bloviating high-budget filmmaker to self-important, bloviating low-budget filmmaker. Yes, I mean that as a compliment. In a career that has spanned nearly two decades, M. Night himself has never really changed – he’s the smartest guy in the room, a writer “whose ideas will save the world” (you haven’t forgotten Lady in the Water, have you?). What’s skyrocketed to the moon and back is studio confidence in his ability to deliver, and the resulting budgets with which they entrust him. I suppose we can trace the breaking point back to After Earth, though I’m not sure how anyone forgave The Last Airbender, and we can all agree that The Happening is demonstrably the most laughably awful piece of otherworldly garbage in any medium ever created for all of time, can’t we?
But lest I continue down the rabbit hole, let me report that Split is actually pretty damn fun, the sort of gonzo white-knuckler that Shyamalan probably always had in him, if not for the inflated studio budgets basically permitting him to double down on his already elevated hubris. His talent as both a thrilling provocateur and a moody visual stylist are well-established – this is the guy who delivered the end-all shocker of The Sixth Sense and earned Oscar nominations for Director and Original Screenplay as a result. Clearly, smaller thrillers of foreboding intensity have always been Shaymalan’s stock-in-trade, even as he recklessly dabbled in supernatural cartoon adaptations and Scientology allegories suggested by Will Smith. On the heels of 2015’s The Visit, a stripped-down howler that was entertaining because it was so relentlessly goofy, and in spite of same, Split is yet another step in the right direction, high-concept but low-budget, creepy but kinda funny, tightly wound both in content and in physical space.
James McAvoy stars as the personification of the title, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who kidnaps three teenage girls and imprisons them in his seedy lair for increasingly dire purposes. One of the girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), seems to have instinctive understanding of how to react under such duress, the result of a swiftly obvious but slowly unveiled backstory of abuse and subjugation. The film functions as a sort of dual character study wrapped inside a conceptual thriller, the character details even more intriguing than the kidnapping plot. It’s unfortunate, then, how Shyamalan is only content to drill down so far on these characters, abundantly highlighting what’s wrong with them (he’s never been one to approach theme with a light touch) without fully exploring the human nuances. He’s also obsessively focused on the concept of a villain with split personalities, which of course is baked right into the title, and which is spectacularly portrayed by McAvoy in a psychotically entertaining performance, but becomes such a preponderance that certain thematic strands that might’ve otherwise deepened the film’s impact are given short shrift.
Persistent flaws aside, Split is slick and taut, and despite a near-two-hour running time, it feels lean thanks to the filmmaker’s renewed investment in more intimate suspense within claustrophobic spaces. It’s still indulgent and over-obvious, two of the apparent Shyamalan mainstays, but it does shed some of the archness he’s been plagued by since as far back as 2002’s Signs (which is largely celebrated, but is the film that started him down the rabbit hole). But it continues the filmmaker down a seemingly self-corrective path that one hopes will only get better over time. And rehab takes time. We shouldn’t expect perfection just two films removed from Shyamalan’s rock bottom – a rock bottom that lasted for seven years.
Persistent flaws aside, Split is slick and taut, and despite a near-two-hour running time, it feels lean thanks to the filmmaker’s renewed investment in more intimate suspense within claustrophobic spaces.