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THE MIND — It’s hard to find a filmmaker who polarizes audiences quite as effectively as M. Night Shyamalan.
Many agree that his early work, specifically “The Sixth Sense,” and “Unbreakable,” are incredibly engaging and smart films. After that, audiences and critics started throwing out mixed reviews for “Signs” and “The Village.” Then “Lady in the Water” came around and critics destroyed it, but some fans still stuck with the writer/director. After “The Happening,” however, things went down hill fast. Even as an M. Night apologist, I couldn’t defend that movie, and the less said about “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth,” the better.
Then in 2015, we got his low-budget horror flick, “The Visit,” and I felt like the M. Night I knew and loved was on his way back. The movie was genuinely funny, scary, clever and entertaining— everything you could hope for. With that ray of sunshine, I was looking forward to his latest film “Split.” I’m happy to say that “The Visit” wasn’t a fluke and that M. Night Shyamalan is back, and I hope he sticks around.
Here is why “Split” is an effective psychological horror film that has me excited for more Shyamalan films:
There is a lot going for “Split” that really made me enjoy it, but if you need just one really good reason to see it, look no further than James McAvoy.
I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say McAvoy plays a character that has 23 distinct personalities, ranging from an overzealous nun-type to a mischievous 9-year-old boy. Throughout the film, McAvoy actually portrays nine of the 23 personalities and his performance is stunning.
Each time he shows up on screen, you know exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Not just because of the wardrobe, but because of his body language. The way he exudes the demeanor and psyche of each character with just a look is nothing short of brilliant.
Each time McAvoy inhabits a personality you feel like he is truly a different person and it’s mesmerizing. This will be described as one of McAvoy’s best performances and it’s well earned. Again, if you were looking for just one reason to see “Split,” make it McAvoy’s performance.
The Hitchcockian vibe
I’ve been trying to think how to describe this and the best way I can figure out how to do that is with the term “Hitchcockian."
You can see many of Shyamalan’s influences in “Split,” but one of the things I loved was the minimalist feel that forced you into the lives of a small group of people and you become intertwined and invested in the lives of these characters. It felt like classic Hitchcock films like “Rope,” “Rear Window” or “Psycho.” A small cast keeps us on our toes with an ever increasing sense of dread and dances us ever closer to the inevitable.
Shyamalan creates an atmosphere that reminded me of some of those Hitchcock classics, as well as some of his earlier films— in particular “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable.”
The constant reveals
We know that Shyamalan was dubbed the “King of the Twist” at one point of his career, and for good reason. For a while there, he seemed to have the perfect reveal at the end of a movie that made you drop your jaw to the floor. “Split” doesn’t exactly have a my-mind-is-blown-beyond-repair ending, but rather the film seems to answer questions with more questions, creating little “twists” throughout the film.
There are so many questions that start popping up as soon as the film starts, and almost as quickly, we start getting some answers. However, every time we unravel a mystery, it seems to be knotted with a new one and it makes for a frustratingly good time. All is laid out when the film wraps up, but with the slow unwinding nature of the film, we’re not hit over the head with a thousand answers in the final few minutes, but rather get the bookends to the journey we’ve been on the whole time.
Shyamalan has learned the art of subtlety
In a number of Shyamalan’s films, there has been so much going on that we needed a good amount of exposition dialogue to really get a good sense of what was happening. Examples that come to mind include Mr. Glass’s speech at the end of “Unbreakable,” most of Paul Giamatti’s character in “Lady in the Water,” and Shyamalan’s cameo in “Signs.” These moments of exposition did not ruin these films for me, but in “Split,” Shyamalan has managed to drop the long dialogue replace it with little more than a look.
This happens a few times in the film, but one moment in particular comes at the end and it felt like the lack of any dialogue drove the point home more than any amount of words ever could. I will not go into more detail, but if you see the film, you will understand exactly what I mean.
“Split” is not M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, but it is certainly one of his better ones and is one of the better psychological horror films in recent memory. The film boasts a smart script, expert directing and memorable performances.
Fellow critic Dave Clyde will give you a rundown on Friday on what you can expect to find in the film by way of content, but know now that “Split” deals with some disturbing themes that will likely stick with you after the credits roll.
“Split” is rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content and behavior, violence and some language.