On the fractured brilliance of M. Night Shyamalan, his return to form with Split, and why he's a reflection of what big-budget filmmaking could be
Split Universal Pictures
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Screenplay: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sulu, Haley Lu Richardson and Brad William Henke
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 57 minutes / 2.35:1
January 20, 2017
(out of four)
The movies have missed M. Night Shyamalan's voice. They have been all the poorer for its absence.
Between his talent and his specific predispositions, Shyamalan is studio genre filmmaking as it could be. Should be. This is not to ignore the reasons why we were deprived of him - or, rather, deprived of him at his best - nor his essential role in that deprivation. But really, that's the whole point: the greatest casualty of his artistic self-destruction (if not self-sabotage) is what Hollywood movies became in his absence.
What they became - what they are now - are live-action fairy tales, conflicted superhero sagas, coming-of-age fantasies. They are adolescents with extraordinary abilities dealing with extraordinary circumstances. They are twisty head trips and domestic supernatural haunts. They are steeped in their own mythology. These descriptions are practically Shyamalan's résumé. Except it's all been happening without him. It's a cruel joke that we've been dealt the assembly-line aesthetics of Marvel and Disney and The Fast and the Furious and DreamWorks Animation, while the phenom whose interests dovetailed so nicely with blockbuster trends slipped off-course, his prodigal talent put to waste. There's so much emphasis in big-budget filmmaking on world building and mythology, yet too little imagination and too little effort to dig into those depths.
It's not that I wish Shyamalan were directing Iron Man 12 or a live-action The Fox and the Hound or a Twilight reboot; it's that he's one of the few both willing and able to really tear into those types of stories rather than handling them like pop symbols and props. One of the few who could have actually made some of that stuff interesting. He understands how fairy-tales work better than most fairy-tale movies do. He understands what makes a superhero tick more than superhero movies do. He understands growing up more than kids' movies do. He deftly plays with the ideas built into them - even the silly or rationally explainable ones, like crop circles and split personalities and religious fears/myths.
Thankfully, after a decade-plus with his instincts misfiring - competing moods interfering with one another, one storytelling decision sabotaging the next - Split shows him being playful again. And not just playful, but confident in why he's being playful, and to what end. It's not just the best movie he's made since his early breakthroughs; it's the first one since then that seems entirely comfortable in its own skin.
It helps that he has the benefit of one particularly great collaborator in James McAvoy, who plays the role of the dissociative Kevin and the various personalities therein. The film's atmospheric current flows through "Kevin" and through McAvoy's brilliant performance. It's not told through his perspective, but the effect is similar to the way a particular person might change the emotional temperature of a room by his or her mood alone. We're on the outside, and Kevin is an enigma - from the point of view of the psychiatrist that treats him as well as the three young women he's captured and imprisoned underground.
When he's agitated, the film settles into persistent unease. When he's cruel or predatory, the film has a leering, dangerous feeling, coated in subliminal violence. When he - or she, rather - is calmly severe, the film buttons up, keeps its emotions at bay, sits on edge. When he's childlike - nine years old, to be specific - we're in the dark, and the film gives us a sense of innocence and hope as palpable as the terror that follows it. When he's relaxed, the film follows suit; it becomes funny, cheerful. Until, that is, he gets agitated again.
That McAvoy can play all of those modes so effortlessly is paramount to the film's effect - the character must be many things and play countless notes, and Split is built on its complete lack of tonal equilibrium. That's what makes it so damn fun, and that's what makes it strange and uneven and haunting, too. McAvoy in this movie probably makes for Shyamalan's most essential actor pairing - which is saying something considering his collaborations with Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Haley Joel Osment (not to mention the severely underrated performance of Paul Giamatti in Lady in the Water). That it coincides - indeed, is largely responsible for - a comeback of sorts for the former It Director (who nicely builds off the modest virtues of 2015's surprising The Visit) is part of its value, but even on its own, McAvoy's performance is just a delight to watch. Even if the whole movie had collapsed around it (it doesn't), he would be the towering, darkly-comic-but-terrifying presence holding strong no matter what.
The film's use of multiple personalities - which has a long history in silly genre entries and even sillier prestige dramas - is both a handy jumping-off point for twisty psychological horror and a big, bold, triumphant extension of Shyamalan's penchant for examining identity through the very embellishments, exaggerations, interpretations and symbolic flourishes of fiction. Cinema, fairy tales, comic books, myths. Any and all. While there will no doubt be factions of the Internet upset with the film for its "depiction" of an actual psychological condition, such an argument is grossly missing the point; Split depicts no such thing, no such actual illness. Jackson's character in Unbreakable put it succinctly. "Characters in comics are often attributed special powers - invisibility, X-ray vision, things of that sort ... It's an exaggeration of the truth. Maybe it's based on something as simple as instinct."
The same logic applies to all sorts of stories - movies as commonly as any other - and Shyamalan tends to handle this kind of character or narrative device on larger mythological terms. In this movie, he makes it clear that there's something bigger going on with this guy than a mental disorder; and, crucially, it's not the mental disorder itself that is the cause of, or rationale for, the capture of Casey (The Witch's Anya Taylor-Joy), Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Claire (Haley Lu Richardson). They are here, they have been told, for an important role. That something involves The Beast, the mythic 24th personality we've been told is on its way. Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) isn't certain that this 24th personality actually exists, but she does seem to have other ideas about Kevin's condition that aren't yet accepted by the psychiatric community. She senses that Kevin's personalities are collaborating, colluding, on ... something. Whether the more sensible "Barry" has the same ideas as the more volatile "Dennis" and the more controlling "Patricia" is another matter.
If you'll pardon the segue, Shyamalan should know all about those types of competing impulses. We've seen his great instincts and his terrible ones. We've seen Shyamalan the director being undermined by Shyamalan the writer. We've been enraptured and frustrated by Shyamalan the storyteller. We've cringed at Shyamalan the actor. His work has been impacted by Shyamalan the self-promoter, Shyamalan the sensitive ego, Shyamalan the Newsweek cover, Shyamalan the myth. He is a major talent who has long been his own worst enemy. What makes him such an indelible artist - and, in many cases, a maddening one - and his artistry such a rare fit with pop culture is that his examinations of pop ideas and genres are both extremely versatile and deeply personal. The trio of films that made his name around the turn of the century have often been lumped together, but aside from a penchant for twist endings, they were all very different movies. He's actually shifted around a lot, all while remaining very recognizably himself as a filmmaker (although how he was defined as a filmmaker, and whether or not that was considered a positive or a negative, has evolved dramatically). The very fact that he likes to play with these stories through his own creations - rather than through pre-packaged brand names or iconic characters - speaks to his personal stake in the material. (His one and only adaptation, The Last Airbender, was not coincidentally his worst, and most lifeless, movie.)
When I saw the film at AFI Fest in November, I immediately wanted to buy Shyamalan stock. He was back. At the screening, he discussed the way working on small budgets for small studios - his only remaining avenue if he wanted to tell his own stories, with the money and control he could have enjoyed in the early aughts having evaporated - changed his filmmaking habits. He had to re-learn things, make decisions differently, be more resourceful. Whatever the formula, it worked. Whether he eventually jumps back into bed with studios, and works with bigger budgets again, is an open question. But what Split makes remarkably clear is how much better he is at the very things that are Hollywood's bread and butter. Welcome back, M. Night. Stay awhile.