For a filmmaker whose filmography I’ve half shunned, M. Night Shyamalan has meant more to me than even the filmmakers I love the most. When I was 10, I watched Signs for the first time and right then I knew I wanted to commit my life to film. I had always loved film as a kid, but Signs was the first film that I watched where I immediately understood it on a thematic level. That a film could be more about then what was explicitly happening on screen blew my tiny mind, and Shyamalan became my first favorite filmmaker. I’m a firm defender of his filmography The Sixth Sense–The Village. Of course, nearly everything after that tested and broke my faith. But through all this Shyamalan managed to pull off something unique by realizing the value of tanking. For the uninitiated, tanking is a sports term where a team decides it’s going to suck for several years so that it can rebuild on prospects and young talent, then be great because of the talent accumulated. Shyamalan, a proud native of Philadelphia, certainly knows a thing or two about tanking, as it’s been the key ideology for the 76ers, one that is divisive a strategy as they come. Shyamalan’s downfall was equal parts our massive expectations of him to be the next Spielberg and equal parts him buying into that narrative and getting overtaken by his newfound savior complex. But in becoming a guy who spawned laughs and eyerolls at the mere mention of his name in a trailer, he managed to free himself of all expectations. He didn’t have to the be greatest filmmaker of his generation anymore, he was now free to be whatever version of himself he wanted. He learned to #TrustTheProcess, and now here, after years of suffering in the wasteland of no victory, he has his Joel Embiid, his wonderful, magical, bizarre and impossible feat of wonder – Split. Split is his most bonkers work in his whole filmography, and the most ambitious and creative he’s been in a decade-plus.
Kevin (James McAvoy) is a man diagnosed with 23 different identities living inside him. One of those identities kidnaps three teenage girls – Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) – for an unknown and terrifying purpose. To know more is to taint the joy of the surprises Shyamalan has in store.
James McAvoy is magnificent in each of his roles. This film wouldn’t work for a second without his commitment. They’re each distinct, fully formed characters in their own right, McAvoy doing remarkable physical work to build each of them. He also imbues small little physical ticks in each of them to connect each one. He runs the spectrum of emotion here, exhilarating in each moment you get to spend with him – terrifying, sorrowful, aching, threatening, unsettling, campy, hilarious and through and through, utterly human. The film rides this nice line between being unsettling and being hilarious because of how unsettling it is, and a large part of that comes from McAvoy.
Coming off one of the best performances of last year in one of the best films of last year (The Witch), Anya Taylor-Joy continues to prove her worth and see her stock rise. She’s just so immensely wonderful at being in the moment, which is key to any effective horror film performance. You can feel the gears in her head moving, figuring out how she’s going to maneuver herself scene to scene, interaction to interaction. It’s like an almost psychic bond she seems to be sharing with the audience, she knows what they’re thinking before they do. Something tells me she’s going to be elevating a lot of genre rolls for years to come, and while I don’t want her trapped in any one archetype, I can’t wait to watch her succeed. She’s off to an incredible start, I can’t wait to see where she goes next.
Betty Buckley, who sold the manic line “Why you eyeing my lemon drink, boy?” in The Happening shows she has more to give than that wonderful moment of gonzo cinema. She’s a more than capable partner for McAvoy, playing his therapist. The two pull off a sort of sparring match in their sessions as she tries to uncover just which identity she’s talking to. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula also contribute great, underrated performances as the other two abducted girls, selling the immediacy of fear and terror so well. Also, it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without a shameless cameo from him. In Split, he plays a small role billed as “Jai, Hooters Lover” so it’s a good time.
Shyamalan picks a composer not named James Newton Howard for the first time in almost twenty years, and that gamble pays off. West Dylan Thordson crafts a unique, iconic score that draws upon the sounds of pipes clanging and boards creaking to create a throbbing, claustrophobic effect that seems to come right out of the walls at you. In contrast to the more mechanically constructed themes, he also crafts an emotional violin theme that sweeps you up in the whole thing without trying too hard. Thordson is a composing talent to keep an eye on.
Split is the first Shyamalan film that feels almost dangerous to watch, that feels naughty in exciting ways. Shyamalan nabbed Mike Gioulakis to shoot the film, and what a brilliant job he does. He brings a similar sense of paranoia to Split that he masterfully conveyed in It Follows. There’s a predatory nature to how his camera lurks around the characters. Shyamalan and Gioulakis also film a remarkable amount of their conversations in tight, intimate closeups. It has a subtle effect, but is the effect empathy for these characters or is it paranoia that you can’t escape? I’m not sure, and that’s what works so well about the choice. The editing from Luke Franco Ciarrocchi is incredibly essential to the film’s success, each scene feels like it cuts to the next before any sort of natural/expected resolution, slowly amping up the underlying tension of the work.
I’m going to be high for weeks off this film. I cannot serviceably describe just how nutty and bonkers this film is without getting into details you don’t want to know about beforehand. But Shyamalan just feels freed with this film, like an animal uncaged in how he constructs this zany work. He feels reborn, getting back to his roots as a craftsman. The levels of insanity this film reaches are glorious, so ridiculous that it shouldn’t work but it somehow does, you’re with it the whole way down its rabbit hole. Does it fumble its reading of how trauma and abuse transform people? Sure. Do I care? No. Should I care? Probably, but when the filmmaking is just this exciting, I can look past it. A quick example of the intoxicating excitement of this film: Split came out a week ago, the theater I attended was half-full. Yet we all started applauding as soon as the credits rolled. That’s rare a film can do that past the midnight screening, that’s a real show of power.
The ending of this film gave me emotions I didn’t know I had in me. A terrific theme written by James Newton Howard for one of Shyamalan’s earlier films begin to play. I thought it curious, Thordson could have easily done the work for this scene, right? Why pick a composition from a previous film, however great the composition is? Then those questions were answered in a quick sequence that blew me away. I literally threw my hat down on the ground in astonishment. I’m grateful it wasn’t spoiled for me, and I pray it doesn’t get spoiled for you. It was a cinematic moment that I had been waiting at least a decade for, and I realized it was also a movie I had been waiting at least a decade for in more ways than one. It felt like gratification, like Shyamalan was saying thank you to anybody that had stuck with him, who had continued to give him a second chance, to any fan of his work. Suddenly all the years lost in the wilderness felt vindicated. No, Shyamalan. Thank you.