Split. 2017. Directed & Written by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Coffey, Brad William Henke, & Sebastian Arcelus.
Blumhouse Productions/Blinding Edge Pictures
Rated PG-13. 117 minutes.
Plenty of people wrote M. Night Shyamalan off long ago. I agree that The Happening-era was grim. But I was one of the few who enjoyed Lady in the Water, and I still love The Village. Since I first saw The Sixth Sense and then Unbreakable the year after in theatre, where both blew me away equally, Shyamalan’s forever been a filmmaker I keep my eye on.
When he came back swinging with The Visit, another one I LOVED, I knew he’d again begin impressing us all. Now, he’s given us Split; his best film to date.
The talk I’ve seen has mostly, rightfully, centred around the lead performances from James McAvoy and Anya Taylor-Joy. What impressed me even above their incredible work is how confident Shyamalan is, once more, in his directorial abilities. No more is he merely relying on twists, which seems to be where he went wrong for a while; focusing too hard on surprising people when his best work has always been style.
Well, he’s provided plenty style on which the audience can feast, conjuring up pure suspense and terror like the magician we know he can be, and along the way he still twists and turns a bit for good measure.
First thing impressed me was the dialogue, particularly from the three young girls (Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, & Jessica Sula). There are so many typical films where people say the same old lines, in the same way. Far too much horror where writers – without irony like Wes Craven or The Cabin in the Woods – have their characters doing unbelievably stupid things, past the point of stretching our disbelief. The girls are logical, for the most part, and especially Casey (Taylor-Joy), whose past informs her present.
Casey is who roots the entire film, despite McAvoy’s ecstatic and dark work as the ultra-interesting villainous character. She is who provides us with an emotional olive branch into the plot and the story’s arc. Her character immediately draws the audience into her emotions, her personal history. Right from the moment you see her, the dialogue introduces us to the character, it’s obvious there is a well of secrets behind her eyes. Taylor-Joy is someone I’m excited to see more of, between this and The Witch she’s proven herself as an actress whose abilities are well beyond her years. Also love to see a legitimately excellent acting talent whose interests, at least for the time being, lie in the horror genre.
Shyamalan’s directing has never been better. Much as I love The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable even more than that, he tops himself here in a number of ways. The camera movements are spectacular in their revelatory motions, with suspense leering around each corner. He manages to do jump scare-like moments without them feeling stale like they do in lesser horror pictures. Because it’s in the tension.
For instance, McAvoy’s multiple personalities creep into the frame, both literally in his actions and figuratively through the lens of the camera. Sometimes it’s him lurking into frame, such as when The Beast finally appears in full to us; other times the camera cuts or pans to a revelation of a personality, or we get to see other characters’ reactions to him which elevates the shock to a much higher level.
When we first see The Beast up close – his skin, his muscles, his arms, then finally his face – it’s a genius sequence. Poor Dr. Karen Fletcher (the always awesome Betty Buckley) is the one to experience the plot moment, as we watch with eyes wide in horror. And what happens when he turns up, I won’t ruin; it is savage, yet subtle and eerie to the point of a chill running up the spine. Exciting stuff, my favourite scene by far.
Another moment I love – SPOILER ALERT! SPOILERS AHEAD! – is the end, before the very final scene, when Crumb has escaped. He’s talking in his various personalities, and Shyamalan uses the mirrors around him to frame the faces, as if they’re all in the room despite being inside one brain. Simple, effective use of reflections which reflect the multiple personalities.
Whereas Taylor-Joy’s Casey is the emotional counterweight of the story, giving us someone with which to spend the wild ride, McAvoy’s performance as Crumb (and his 20-odd other personalities) is a shining star of the film. He gets into a mental and physical space that we only see every so often from actors, whether it’s De Niro in Raging Bull, Bale in The Machinist or any other similar role.
His multiple personality disorder as the villain is aided by the intensity of his dedication, in that he gets to a point where every personality stemming from the character of Crumb has different facial ticks, they use mannerisms respectively according to their affect, the inflection in their voices change and one even has a speech impediment, another uses McAvoy’s natural accent while the Dennis personality has an unsettling, baritone-d accent different from the others, too.
Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Ahead!: There’s a moment with Dr. Fletcher when Barry, the sweet fashion designer, reveals that it’s actually Dennis who’s taken “the light” during their therapy session. McAvoy uses his face in such a way that you forget about the dialogue, you pay less attention to any sound, then you zero in on his expression. Gradually his face melts from Barry’s toothy smile to the more serious, sombre look of Dennis, and I’m telling you, it is enough to raise the hairs on your arms.
This is a 5-star affair. All the way. There’s not a thing I feel needed changing, I’m of the belief that M. Night Shyamalan’s turned a corner. Realising those twists, while awesome when executed correctly, aren’t the answer to his filmmaking magic, he’s perfecting his best capabilities through a combination of storytelling and style. And yes, for a couple flicks he fell off track. He either went one way or the other, instead of using his gifts in tandem.
Most of all, the guy is an original filmmaker. Even his failures show promise because of the fact he swings for the fences, every last chance at bat. Hopefully the renewed confidence Shyamalan has obviously felt since The Visit scared up a storm will continue to allow his best foot to step forward on his next project. Something I don’t doubt, not for a second.