Once upon a time, there was a director I really liked named M. Night Shyamalan. He made a movie called ‘The Sixth Sense’ and it was a hit. It had atmosphere, suspense, and a cool twist. The movie was very popular and the country was divided into people who were surprised by the twist and those who lied about seeing it coming. His next film, ‘Unbreakable’, was one of my favorite superhero movies of all time precisely because no one knew it was a superhero film until the very end. And then he made ‘Signs’ featuring a mopey Mel Gibson and had the result of making me afraid of corn fields at night. M. Night Shyamalan became a director, much like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, whose films I marked on my calendar as must watches.
And then it all came apart. ‘The Village’ wasn’t so much bad as it was underwhelming but everything afterwards was increasingly awful. What happened? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Perhaps it was the stories became increasingly pretentious. The actor choices became erratic. The cinematography remained great and the usage of sound and camera angles, a Shyamalan hallmark, were impeccable but his movies became soulless and rote. With the release of ‘After Earth’, it became official – M. Night Shyamalan was a hack.
Then a curious thing happened. He made a good movie. ‘The Visit’ wasn’t high cinema and had its flaws but for the first time in a decade, Shyamalan made something that was interesting and worth watching. Once again, what happened? I tend to believe Shyamalan had gotten lazy. The studios let him make a movie but they took away his budget and gave him young unknown actors who were hungry. They told him to shut up and work and I think it made all the difference in the world.
So where does that leave Shyamalan’s new movie, ‘Split’? Is this low-budget movie the hungry Shyamalan or is it the lazy indulgent Shyamalan?
I’m happy to say it is a lot of old Shyamalan with just a hint of indulgence. ‘Split’ tells the story of a guy with dissociative identity disorder whose mental illness results in twenty-three different personalities. He kidnaps three teenage girls for a very specific reason and the movie is about how they must joust with the various personalities to survive. There is a side story of the guy’s interaction with his therapist, a story which gives several clues as to where the movie is ultimately going.
Tonally, the movie shares a lot of similarities with last year’s excellent, ’10 Cloverfield Lane’. It is mostly claustrophobic but the setting matters less than the interplay of the various characters. It is really James McAvoy’s movie and it he tears into his role with relish. Why wouldn’t he? He gets to play two dozen different characters and it is quite clear he is having a good time and I really enjoyed watching him chew the scenery. I wasn’t as impressed with the performance of the chief protagonist, one of the teenage girls with a bit of past in her past. I initially thought her performance wasn’t energetic enough but in further reflection, her performance was subtle and restrained as befitting a character with her background.
Is M. Night Shyamalan back? Can he sustain this second wind? I think time will tell but I think studios have cracked the code. Give him a smallish budget and force him to improvise and innovate – his technical expertise is as good as it has ever been and it appears he is back in the business of building chemistry with his actors again. This is a movie worth seeing.
Oh by the way, there is a Shyamalan twist to this movie. The only thing I will say is that he better be serious or I will kill him slowly.