The Sixth Sense.
The start of a promising career.
The Lady in the Water.
Brilliant concepts, poor execution.
The Last Airbender.
Blockbuster fare, lacking in that Hitchcockian flair.
This is the sporadic diagram of Shyamalan’s filmography. It’s fair to say, he’s suffered a bit of an identity crisis. From a director with purpose, steam-rolling through a triptych of thrilling films, to a director concocting films that might well live under the mantra ‘what could have been’, Shyamalan had almost disappeared off the cinematic landscape. It was a shame, because for many of us, with those first three films, it seemed as though we were witnessing the return of the Hitchcockian ingenuity and effortlessness that is rarely captured in modern cinema.
Then The Visit arrived, a low budget, found-footage, country house thriller. While it was imperfect, the fact that Shyamalan had all but abandoned the high-budget, VFX driven projects that had poisoned his career, showed us that maybe there was a chance of rejuvenation.
And now we have Split, a film that has surreptitiously snuck into a January slot, ready to spark a little fire into the frosty feeling of the Winter period. A thriller that has a bit of bark, a bit of bite, and a lot of showcasing of what made us love Shyamalan in the first place.
The film follows James McAvoy’s Kevin, a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder, with 23 separate personalities including the self-assured Dennis, the unnervingly quiet Patricia, and the lispy and naïve Hedwig. He kidnaps three teenage girls, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula, and as they begin to discover that Kevin suffers from this disorder, begin to befriend and communicate with the personalities in an attempt to escape. It is only through this, and the therapist (Betty Buckley) who attends to Kevin in their psychotherapy sessions, that the girls have any hope of escaping, which proves more vital the more unhinged Kevin becomes as his plan is slowly revealed.
Now you’d be forgiven for noticing the similarities to 10 Cloverfield Lane, another taut thriller released earlier last year, featuring a similar premise. Secluded location. Dangerous man holding others captive. Intricate details slowly deduced that reveal a darker scheme at play. Yet where that film built an atmosphere of mystery, questioning motives at every turn, Split works on a pulpier basis. This isn’t a film that asks any great question about the nature of mental illness. It is instead used as a template for a villain who oozes with dread, terrifying with the apparent obliviousness of his disorder, as he switches between personalities, talking about the others as though they were threats, or acting parentally towards the younger persona of Hedwig.
Now before we discuss the filmmaking and craft on display here, none of this would function as well as it does without the full commitment of McAvoy to the role. Here is an actor who has shined throughout his career, but has never been given a chance to fully stretch his legs, experiment: the closest he came to this was 2013’s flawed but funny Filth. In Split, we see this come to a spear-point. McAvoy excels in a challenging role that could easily have come off as either flat, lacking in the menace required, or entirely campy, stimulated by caricatures of the personality stereotypes that Kevin channels. Throughout the film, we see McAvoy build a bond with the audience, through his ‘performances’, which is ingenious in itself: despite playing one character, as we are reminded, the personalities are so well played out that we entirely forget that the innocent Hedwig belongs to the same body as the terrifying Patricia. He is inherently evil in his actions, and yet he never loses our attention, our want to watch him, to gaze at his tour de force of a display of acting talent.
This is all helped along by Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who retain the stylistic tension that the director all but negated in his later projects. The contrast between close-ups and wide angles perfectly balances out the need to show McAvoy’s extraordinarily expressive performance, as well as a chance to set the scene, establish the environment, to give the world character. There’s almost an essence of Dario Argento, Sam Peckinpah a la Straw Dogs or perhaps even a little Cronenberg in there, with later scenes exploring body horror as you’d never expect. There is a lot to admire here, and the lighting and sound all augment the overall aesthetic, as Shyamalan constructs a thriller that truly terrifies at points.
The film isn’t perfect however. In terms of structure, I found that the film failed to set in a consistent pace. For a thriller, the constant cuts from scenes in Kevin’s hideout, to scenes involving Buckley’s psychotherapist, to flashbacks involving Taylor-Joy’s protagonist Casey, it seems a little jarring. While I particularly appreciated the narrative input the flashbacks had in giving Casey real backstory, they came at points where the mystery and dread surrounding Kevin were really mounting. While it certainly builds to an engaging climax and creates a connection to the characters, it can often feel a little too much like exposition for the sake of it, rather than subtly lacing in details that enhance the overall tension. A film such as 10 Cloverfield Lane had a stronger, more gradual release of information, while never really straying from the setting except from the opening and conclusion. I think Split would have benefitted from this more streamlined approach.
Overall though, I found Shyamalan’s film to be well worth the price of admission, which is a relief to say, seeing as he’d seemed to have lost his footing for so long. While it can often stray in terms of its narrative structure, McAvoy’s performance and Shyamalan/Gioulakis’ cinematographic flair all come together to produce a thriller that works in building suspense, and paying that suspense off with a finale that brings the terror and grotesquery in spades.
Shyamalan is back. Let’s hope he sticks around for a little longer this time.