Count me in the (I’d assume growing) faction of online critics who is rooting for the Shyamalanaissance. The man has thrilled us in a myriad of ways over the year – whether it was seeing dead people, a seemingly unhurtable man with a calling or aliens who go bump in the night – his modern Hitchcockian yarns have been wonderful and spooky. That said, he’s also slipped – like face on the concrete slipped. It started with a little Village that was not as it seemed followed by an author spinning a very stupid children’s fable to an actual chase scene with the wind (please re-watch The Happening – maybe come up with a drinking game for it.) And these are his original visions – dare I mention the soulless studio work he’s taken on as of late. So color me thrilled to see the man back where he belongs, spinning low-budget horror for Blumhouse Productions in his own unique way.
It started in 2015 with a little found footage romp called The Visit. Shyamalan played with a fear that a person may not be as they appear – and took it to a hysterical extreme. It was a refreshing take on a tired found footage trope, a surprise to say the least. Now we have Split – a tale just as simple but sprinkled with that signature Shyamalan weirdness.
James McAvoy plays a man with a condition known as DID (dissociative identity disorder.) He has, we’re told, 23 distinct personalities – all of which are so powerful they can fundamentally change his body chemistry (one for example, has diabetes for which he takes insulin shots, the others do not.) On one inconspicuous morning after Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) birthday she and her two friends are being escorted out to the parking lot by her Dad. They are going to give her weird high school acquaintance Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) a ride home after her Uncle forgets to pick her up. But after hopping in the car, a strange thing happens, Claire’s Dad doesn’t get in the driver’s seat – Dennis does. After knocking the girls out they awake in an underground bunker – with two double beds and an immaculately kept bathroom.
What plays out from here is better left unsaid as Shyamalan uses McAvoy’s tour-de-force performance to bring his many personalities to life while breaking down the girl’s defenses. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Casey, bringing a steely but boiling intensity to her role. We learn about Casey’s past and even though Shyamalan struggles to wrestle with the themes he reveals it does add plenty of weight to Taylor-Joy’s performance. Rather than look at Dennis, Hedwig, Patricia, Kevin, Barry etc. as a monster she attempts to relate, to understand. This isn’t some victim/captor nonsense but it’s certainly a better strategy than bum rushing him.
Shyamalan imbues this B-movie silliness with a confidence behind the camera that we haven’t seen from him in nearly a decade. This is truly where he works best – taking base level fears we have as humans and adding his signature flair for the supernatural. It hasn’t always worked, in fact it’s crashed as many times, but here I thought it mostly did. Yes, there is a twist, but it’s not as revelatory as he’s gone for in the past. Here I found it astoundingly bizarre and appreciated the gall that he actually went for it.
In this modern age of Hollywood going for safe, easy properties I found Split, in many ways, to be downright revelatory in it’s B-movie schlockiness. Sure, many will dismiss it as shallow or not choosing a lane and sticking with it but that’s precisely why it shouldn’t be tossed aside. Shyamalan is dabbling and I for one found it to be one hell of an experiment.