Emerging from the impressive tailspin that pretty much left his name in tatters, that cheeky little Spielberg/Hitchcockian hybrid known as M. Night “what a twist!” Shyamalan managed to deliver his best movie in years (since Signs, The Village, or which ever one you saw before you personally felt the director vanished diectly up his own butthole). After starting on the comeback trail with with the devilishly fun first-person frightener The Visit, he has finally reclaimed a sizable semblance of his former glory with this twisted and twisty tale that creeps, fascinates and (most importantly) entertains. It’s the first of a series of comebacks that can be attributed to the ubiquitous Blumhouse, who can also count Spike (BlacKkKlansman) Lee among filmmakers whose voices had maybe been muted a tad by the passing years and it’s telling that even though you might not have even noticed Shyamalan was gone, it’s still a wonderful thing to see him back.
Kevin Crumb has 23 separate identities, all different, all trying to get to the “light”, the term they use for having control of Kevin’s body. Usually the calmer personalities run things and all the “more desirable” identities share Kevin in an orderly fashion and are lead by Barry, a fashion designer. However, in somewhat of a mental coup, the undesirable personalities: the calmly unstable Dennis, the frosty, cruel Patricia and 9 year old Hedwig; have revolted and taken control of Kevin’s headspace and are making preparations for the forming of a brand new 24th identity that they’ve started worshiping who bears the worrying monikers “The Beast”. This almost superhuman bestial mountain of violence apparently features augmented strength, bulletproof skin and the popping veins of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and needs sacrifices in order to prepare for his accention, so Dennis kidnaps three local girls who from the local mall and spirits them away to his lair. One of these girls is Casey, a damaged loner who’s brutal past have given her superior survival skills which she uses to try and negotiate the labyrinth of Kevin’s jumbled and jostling personalities in order to work out which ones are good, which ones are bad and how to manipulate both. As Casey’s time rapidly ticks away before she gets to find out whether or not The Beast is actually real or not, Kevin’s psychiatrist slowly begins to realise the danger her patient may present – but will she be too late to stop the carnage caused by one man’s fractured psyche?
The notion behind Split is, like most of Shyamalan’s catalogue of darkly high concept output, is gloriously awesome bollocks; a blatently ridiculous concept made feasible by somber camerawork and heroic amounts of earnestness by everyone involved. Anyone with a passing knowledge with multiple personality disorders know that you can’t just need insulin just because you wake up as someone who THINKS they need it and the disorder is treated as respectfully as it is in Psycho (ie not really that much). But while M. Night’s work here may still not exactly measure up to his very best (Unbreakable is still my personal favorite although everyone else favours The Sixth Sense), the utterly magnificent James McAvoy as Kevin and the various members of his “Horde” papers over any and all cracks in the enjoyably creaky B movie plot. Every time the script starts to groan under the weight over how far fetched and silly it may all be, McAvoy’s jaw droppingly complicated performance provides the concrete backbone that stops the movie jumping the shark on a rocket powered cycle. Simply said, it’s endearingly odd that between the it’s director and star, the movie is incredibly subtle and yet utterly mental, often at the same time.
Giving each “character” their own traits both verbally and physically (Hedwig’s lisp, Patricia’s English accent and so forth) draws out a lot of tension and large amounts of dark humor from the material and it’s really a shame that the actor wasn’t recognised for this in someway (even a MTV award for Hedwig’s memorably traumatic and maniacal dance moves would have been SOMETHING). In fact Macavoy’s showy efforts are SO good he somewhat drowns out the rest of the cast who can’t possibly hope to stand in the face of what is a force 10 acting hurricane, in fact only Anya Taylor-Joy, who dazzled so much in The Witch, manages to weather the storm. Utilizing those golf ball sized eyes that with a fixed expression that she’s carrying the entire weight of the world on her quiet shoulders, she manages to counterbalance McAvoy’s deranged performance with inner strength and a sense of subtlety that her co-star simply has no interest in. With this role adding to her fast growing list of achievements (and I’ve said this before) I’m frankly amazed she hasn’t yet managed to crack the big time.
As the film mutates from fasinating thriller to full blown horror (by way of some frequent black humour) we finally get to Shyamalan’s infamous trademark; the thing he’s most famous for and yet one of the major reasons for his “downfall”: The Twist. While most of the filmmaker’s surprise endings usually invert or subvert everything you’ve just sat through, this one is different and it was something I was personally begging to see for a long time.
The big reveal that Split is actually a stealth sequel to Unbreakable maybe isn’t in the list of greatest twists that knocked you on your ass (like Planet Of The Apes, Se7en or yes, The Sixth Sense) did but it makes me invested again in M. Night Shyamalan’s career again from here on in – even if the trilogy capping Glass failed to match up with it’s older brothers – but then surely that’s a surprising ending in of itself that you can get behind…