This weekend saw the release of the Vin Diesel vehicle XxX: Return of Xander Cage, but Xander’s thunder was stolen. In terms of cinematic returns, the weekend clearly belonged to Mr. M. Night Shyamalan. In less than twenty years, Shyamalan has gone from being known as the box office wunderkind of The Sixth Sense to the derided auteur of The Last Airbender. His name became synonym with badness (and not without reason, he made some truly atrocious crap), but if Split, which is poised to perform quite well at the box office is any indication, Shyamalan made have found a way to make his way back to the top. Those who predicted this return to form after seeing last year’s schlocky horror comedy The Visit deserve a pat on the back. The Shyamalassaince is here.
There have been many theories as of what exactly went wrong with Shyamalan’s career. I tend to agree with those who believe he bought too hard into his mythology. He blindly believed that he was a genius. As his movies grew more ambitious, he started to be swallowed up by his insecurities. By the time he was transparently exorcising his demons by making a film critic the villain of the nonsensical Lady in the Water, he had clearly lost his touch.
Losing whatever good will he had left in Hollywood must have been a sobering and humbling experience for Shyamalan. After a number of big-scale disasters, he has retreated to smaller, schlockier, and honestly, more entertaining fare. Split is a small-scale thriller on the style of last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, in which a trio of teenage girls are kidnapped by a man with 23 different personalities, a couple of which happen to be psychopaths. The girls are led by Anya Taylor-Joy (coming strong off The Witch), while the villain is played with gusto by James McAvoy, who can’t help but rejoice in the opportunity to chew some scenery after spending the last few years chained to the role of Professor X by those X-Men movies.
It’s the kind of tight and effective scenario that would be hard to screw up, although if someone was going to load too many things on this sturdy tortilla, it would’ve been Shyamalan. Writing has always been the director’s weakness, and the screenplay is definitely the weakest part of Split. There a number of moments in which plot points are spelled out through clunky, expository dialogue. There are certain moments in which characters (who are not supposed to be mentally ill) behave in ways you wouldn’t expect humans to behave. Not in huge ways, but in small details that could’ve been easily tweaked by taking another pass at the script.
That being said, the script is not weak per se. It might have a couple noticeable weaknesses, but it works. Mostly, because Shyamalan is truly confident behind the camera. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his direction, which is a testament to how compelling he can be as a director. One of the smartest moves Shyamalan has made throughout his career is to surround himself with some of the best cinematographers in the business. This time, he recruits Mike Gioulakis, who did a terrific job with David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows.
This collaboration results in such carefully chosen camera angles, Split could be used a primer on the art of shot composition. The use of space within (and outside) the frame is not only impressive, but fun. There is a scene in which one of the kidnapped girls runs through a long, dark hallway facing the camera. The audience, failing to see where she’s heading, is in that moment as impatient and lost as the character herself.
That’s the crazy, and so satisfying thing about Split. Too often has Shyamalan shot himself in the foot by trying to dazzle his audience with complicated plots and lofty ideas. What makes those other movies so disappointing is that they seem designed to impress an audience, not to connect with them. Split is different. It is focused on character in a way no Shyamalan movie has been in a long time. When the big “twist” comes along, the conflict is resolved by something that has been set up as the characters’ defining characteristic. The twist comes from within. It’s, admittedly, a “problematic” solution to the plot. The kind of simplistic psychology that belonged in B-movies for a long time but has become too insensitive for our times. It is so of a piece with that kind of trashy story-telling, however, that it worked quite well on me.
Now, the movie keeps going for a little while after the plot is resolved, and goes to an unexpected place, which I was frankly hesitant about… until the very last scene in the film, which is practically a post-credit sequence. Then… Well, let’s just say that after watching Split, I’m quite ready for the M. Night Shyamalan cinematic universe.
Grade: 8 out of 10