I can remember a time when I was unabashedly in love the films of M. Night Shyamalan. “The Sixth Sense” was such a well-constructed film made infinitely better by a “high-holy hell, I didn’t see that coming” ending. His second film, “Unbreakable,” was an equally taut piece of drama that brilliantly deconstructed the comic book film in a real-world setting. “Signs” was an exceptional thriller with great performances and some clever writing.
But then things went off the rails. Shyamalan’s fiery descent from cinematic greatness has been well-documented. Fortunately, he seems to have found his way out of the flaming wreckage that was his career. 2015’s “The Visit” was a highly entertaining piece of found-footage fluff. With “Split,” he has again delivered an impressive piece of cinema. It feels like fulfillment of what everybody saw in his first three films and quickly forgot with his next five pieces of festering shit.
“Split” is an amazing cinematic experience. A ridiculous, over-the-top, gripping, engaging movie, which combines the best elements of a claustrophobic thriller and ludicrous fun of a film unafraid to venture into the bizarre. To say I loved “Split” may be something of an understatement. It was a joyful trip to the movies so rare in a day and age where filmmakers take themselves way too seriously. Shyamalan delivers an exciting, somewhat straightforward set-up: Three teenage girls are kidnapped by a deranged lunatic who locks them in an underground compound and menaces them with steely gazes and insane fits of rage.
James McAvoy (“X-Men: Apocalypse”) plays the role of kidnapping psychopath, but there’s a twist: Our kidnapper suffers from multiple-personality disorder. His mind is a minefield of conflicting personas vying for control. There’s the cloistered, repressed Dennis. The maternal and overbearing Patricia, who handles other personalities like badly behaving children. Then there’s Hedwig, a 9-year-old boy who takes more than a passing interest in the three attractive teenage girls locked away in his home. McAvoy is an amazing actor who delivers one the most eclectic and fun performances of the 21st century.
Shyamalan does some genuine character-building in the film, giving us insight not only into the mindset of our fractured antagonist, but of our troubled protagonist who has some very nasty memories brought up after being kidnapped. The movie deserves to be seen spoiler-free, so I’ll just say there are a number of twists, turns, and hard lefts made throughout the film. None of them really feel like those classic “ah-ha” Shyamalan-third-act twists, but instead are plot developments from basic ideas taken to hilariously indescribable places. So much of his body of work has involved pulling the carpet out from under audiences. “Split” feels more akin to “Unbreakable” or “Signs,” where he steadily builds toward something, and the conclusion is a continuation of the same ideas and connecting them in an exciting way.
It also excels by not being shackled by its premise. So many films fail to deliver on the promise of an engaging idea. “Split” manages to build upon a clever premise and take it to some unexpected places. It’s also a film with some levels, which normally eludes this particular genre. I was reminded a lot of last year’s “10 Cloverfield Lane,” which tries to do something similar with the prisoner/escape scenario. “Split” is a far more successful and satisfying claustrophobic thriller. Both have great performances and tense setups, but “Split” manages to add some extra levels of crazy that don’t feel tacked on.
Everything about the film is perfect in a way so few Hollywood movies can be these days. It feels fresh yet familiar and features some of the best scenery-chewing I’ve seen in ages. It is, however, a movie I could see people totally hating. Audiences’ love of “Split” will be derived from how much bottled insanity they can chug before turning sour. If anyone has a finely tuned bullshit meter, “Split” might be a little too ludicrous. For my money, I wish we had more movies like “Split”: fun, strange pieces of drama unafraid to be weird. Say what you want about the extremely inconsistent Shyamalan, but when it works, it works really well.