Two years ago, M. Night Shyamalan made a comeback of sorts with ‘The Visit’, a Found Footage horror lark for Blumhouse that was surprisingly effective and even more surprisingly successful. Although the movie wasn’t as masterful as the 2.5 great films Shyamalan made at the turn of the millennium (‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Unbreakable’ and the first half of ‘Signs’), at least it wasn’t a Razzie-worthy mess like ‘The Happening’ or ‘After Earth’. Now Shyamalan is back at Blumhouse with ‘Split’, a slightly more ambitious and infinitely more stylish new horror outing.
This one’s about as good as ‘The Visit’. However, it’s tough to say if M. Night is truly in the midst of a comeback or merely blipping back into watchable territory before disappearing back into his head and up his ass.
The premise is deliberately simple and contained for budget-conscious producer Jason Blum. Anya Taylor-Joy (‘The Witch’) stars as one of three teen girls who are kidnapped from a mall birthday party and shoved into a fortified basement by a loony played by James McAvoy. Obviously, McAvoy is the baddie, but to complicate things he’s also playing a character with 23 personalities, many of which make their way onto the screen. Sometimes he’s a kindly child, sometimes a cruel woman, sometimes a helpful janitor, and on and on. We don’t actually see all 23, but we get plenty plus hints of a secret emerging personality known only as “The Beast.” The bulk of the film is contained to that claustrophobic space and handful of actors, with only brief breaks, such as McAvoy’s therapy sessions and Taylor-Joy’s flashbacks to her abusive childhood. The story inches by with tension and dread, building to inevitable horrors and an even more inevitable twist ending.
After robbing himself of his trademark controlled visual style in ‘The Visit’, Shyamalan teams up with ‘It Follows’ cinematographer Mike Gioulakis to deliver some brilliantly grimy tension here. While Shyamalan’s writing talents are debatable, his skill as a suspense craftsman is unquestioned and he wrings some sweaty-palmed fun. ‘Split’ creates unease from the first scene and rarely lets up. It’s handsomely mounted, yet also a little dirtier than usual for the director. He’s hardly diving into the NC-17 deep end, but he lets some icky ideas and images ease in. It’s still more thriller than horror, going for psychological unease over sleaze, but there’s a certain attempt to go darker than he ever has. For the most part, that’s a welcome shift.
McAvoy is a damn delight as he piles on the personalities with creepy glee. Most of the best moments in the movie come from watching the actor slip in and out of his various roles with a mixture of menace and dark comedy. He’s hamming it up, but doing so in such an entertaining way that the excesses are easy to forgive. It should come as no surprise that McAvoy acts circles around the competition, given that he’s in a role that demands he hog as much of the screen as possible. His sparring mates are all good, but just don’t get the space or opportunity to match him. (Anya Taylor-Joy is given a role as much defined by quiet pain as McAvoy’s is by wild characterization, but still she should have gotten more.) This is the James McAvoy show and he crushes it, even as the movie teeters over the edge.
As Shyamalan’s thriller spirals into melodrama toward its finale, something doesn’t quite click. This time, it’s not that the inevitable twisteroo fails spectacularly like some of the filmmaker’s cinematic tricks have in the past. It just seems to stumble its way through fairly obvious narrative and genre tropes before sputtering to a stop. While the pacing and drama ramp up accordingly, something about the film becomes perfunctory and overdrawn. The wheels spin and come dangerously close to falling off.
Thankfully, there’s still enough here to enjoy that it still feels like Shyamalan is inching his way back into the Win column after a decade lost in overly serious and self-satisfied nonsense. It ain’t great, but it also ain’t ‘Lady in the Water’. That’s exciting. I’ll take it.