Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Split is intricate and stunning and incredibly constructed and darkly funny and packed to the brim full of amazing performances. And it's fun. I have to say this upfront before my worst pretentious instincts kick in. Split is fun. It's a dark movie that looks unblinkingly at the darkness of the human soul, but it's also fun. Split is also kinda ridiculous, a B-movie about a guy with twenty three distinct personalities kidnapping young women for the twenty fourth personality. I mean, that is a completely ridiculous and outrageous and over-the-top premise for any kind of horror film. But the genius of Split, and it really is genius, is how straight faced it wears its premise while at the same time revelling in its ridiculousness. Split is really an A-level art film wrapped up in the pulp trappings of a B-movie.
It's like all the promise and hype and accolades that were shouted to the heavens and back after the release of The Sixth Sense all those many years ago, all of the Hitchcock and Truffaut and Spielberg comparisons, all of the dreams and aspirations of film fans that were dumped on the shoulders of a younger M. Night Shyamalan, it's like everything that was hope has become reality. Mr. Shyamalan's story has been one of great talent and even greater hubris, a great rise and a stunning fall.
With his third film, The Sixth Sense, he exploded into the public consciousness. It's a film that, like The Usual Suspects, is re-watchable even after knowing the twist. Hell, it's probably just as enjoyable - watching the pieces come together, seeing all of the clues laid out from the beginning to the reveal. Follow that up with Unbreakable, a decisive film - at least in my house, I loves it, she doesn't. I know, I know. Anyway, that three film stretch, Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs and you have yourself a director with a unique voice, with a distinctive film vocabulary, with a talent for taking pulp and making it seem like high art. Signs may give me a migraine when I think about the story but there are scenes in that film that stand with some of the greatest film moments of this young century.
And then the hubris and the fall and in 2010 audiences were laughing at the trailer for Devil when the words "from the mind of M. Night Shyamalan" were on the screen. In less than fifteen years he had gone from the next Hitchcock to the guy directing a Will Smith vanity project.
And then The Visit happened. And word was his confidence was back. And word was his skills and talents and his singular vision were back on display and were better used in a smaller sandbox. Split reinforces that thesis, that Mr. Shyamalan is a much better film maker when his resources are limited. Looking all the way back to 1999, that really does seem to be a recurring theme. His best films are his smaller films. Smaller budgets, smaller expectations equals a film that is at once crowd pleasing and somehow intimate.
Split is a low budget genre film, the kind of exploitative B-movie story that would have been at home at both midnight showings and drive-in screens in the 70s. But - and this is a pretty important but here - but, Split is so much more than the sums of its parts. Like the work of Hitchcock, Split elevates a pulpy genre story to a height that is dizzying and is kind of blinding and wonderful to behold. Look, I'm not making the Hitchcock comparisons lightly, I know that it sounds like great hyperbole but I think I might have a point. Let me unpack it. Hitchcock was one of the greatest film makers of, well, ever. A singular talent, the likes of which that will never be seen again. And while he was a great and mighty giant, most of his films were pretty pulpy. Psycho, Vertigo, Birds, North By Northwest - all pulp stories that in lesser hands would have been forgotten. But in his hands, with Hitchcock overseeing the work, they are all classics, a bundle of B-movie story beats and sexual confusion and mid-century paranoia. And when he is at his best, as he is with Split and Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, Mr. Shyamalan very nearly enters that hallowed ground. It is a land of genre film being lifted up by the talent and confidence of the hand at the helm.
Split really does mark the return of a great film maker, it marks the return of a writer/director of great importance. Working with the cinematographer who shot It Follows, Mike Gioulakis, Mr. Shyamalan creates shots that take full advantage of the spaces the film moves through. The room that serves as the cell for the three girls seems barely large enough to hold two girls, with the camera rarely framing all three at once. The actors looking directly at the camera when speaking to each other, a trick used by Jonathan Demme to great effect in Silence of the Lambs to keep the audience off balance while also creating a sense of intimacy with the characters, serves the same purpose in Split but also exaggerates the claustrophobic quarters in which the girls are imprisoned. There are long tracking shots that are never showy, never bring attention to the technical aspects of what is happening. The stress, the suspense is too great to become overtly aware of what is happening on the other side of the camera.
And I haven't even got to the performances.
James McAvoy is deservedly getting all of the acclaim. He somehow achieves both subtlety and over the top scenery chewing. He is, sometimes in the same moment, over the top and incredibly intimate. His performance is both macro and micro. He is terrifying and funny and sadly empathetic. I can't say it better than Steve Rose of the Guardian. In his review he writes "it's a little like the T1000 at the end of Terminator 2. But there are no special effects here, just acting".
Anya Taylor-Joy, of last year's The Witch, is deserving of much praise and high regard as well. Her performance as Casey, a girl who is broken in a way that is all too real, a girl who has learned in her short life how to survive even the worst nightmares, is the stuff where legends are born. Her heartbreaking eyes, her struggle to understand her captor, to find weakness where only terror lives, Ms Taylor-Joy is the heart and soul of this movie. There is are moments of great restraint and subtlety that I'm sure audiences will be talking about long after the credits roll.
My only disappointment with Split? That it is released in Screw You January, those four or five weeks when studios dump things in theatres that they would have just rather have forgotten about. Sequels to tired franchises most everyone had forgotten had existed, animal movies with behind the scenes questionable animal treatment. Screw You January is where movies go to die. But not this week, nope. This week Screw You January becomes Whoa January. If this is a taste of what film will be like in 2017, then hold on tight. It's gonna be a fun ride.