Don’t look now, but M. Night Shyamalan has two (admittedly modest) hits in a row — so maybe the “career death” capped off by After Earth was the best thing that ever happened to the man Time magazine once referred to (waaaaaaaay prematurely) as “The Next Spielberg.”
Of course, that was in no way a label Shyamalan himself ever asked for, especially considering that his “gotcha twist”-heavy career seems to be at least circumstantially indicative of a guy who was trying to ensconce himself more as “The Next Hitchcock” than anything else, and the stylistic debt he owes — and has, perhaps, always owed — to The Master Of Suspense has never been on more clear and present display than it is in his latest, 2017’s Split.
First, I suppose, the good : James McAvoy gives a performance — or perhaps that should be a series of performances — for the ages as troubled/troubling kidnapper Kevin Wendell, a man who suffered devastating abuse as a child that resulted in his developing an acute case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (or DID) that plagues him to this day. Enter Barry, Orwell, Jade, Patricia, Dennis, Crumb — and one more who will be making his way to the forefront before all is said and done. McAvoy flat-out kills it in all these various roles, and his mental, emotional, and in some cases even physical transformations are a thing to behold. You’ve never seen an actor do what he does here, and chances are you’ll never see it again. This film is worth the price of admission just to watch McAvoy do what he does here.
In a way, you even end up feeling sorry for his co-stars : Betty Buckley, who in another more sane and just world should have had a Meryl Streep-like career, is particularly superb as Kevin’s sympathetic-but-conflicted therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, and Anya Taylor-Joy delivers a quietly devastating tour-de-force of her own as “final girl” kidnap victim Casey Cooke, who coincidentally also harbors some tragic and deeply-held secrets that have made her into something — other than what she may have otherwise been. For their part, Jessica Sula and Haley Lu Richardson also do the very best they possibly can with limited screen time as fellow victims Marcia and Claire, respectively, both of whom are dispensed with in plot terms rather quickly in order to narrow the film’s almost claustrophobically-tight character focus. So, yeah, there’s some great acting on display here from many, but make no mistake — this is McAvoy’s show all the way.
Ten million bucks is small change for Shyamalan compared to previous efforts, of course, but following on the heels of the equally-budget-conscious The Visit, it’s becoming clear that more modest productions are better suited to the auteur‘s vision and talents. Locations here are few in number but very effectively utilized, and what visual effects are on offer don’t make their presence known until the final act, and really deliver a deliciously savage gut-punch that, granted, requires an even heavier level of suspension of disbelief than most films if you really want to feel it, but chances are that between McAvoy’s performance(s) and Shyamalan’s scripting and direction, you’ll be more than ready to buy in.
As far as Shyamalan’s ever-present twists and turns go, there are some real doozys here, but the last and biggest of the bunch seems to be generating the most controversy — I’ll refrain from revealing too much for fear of being ostracized by the ever-present “spoiler police,” suffice to say that I can see why detractors claim that this Marvel- style mid-credits “zinger” that effectively ties the present film in with a previous entry in the director’s ouevre is being derided as being of the cheap n’ easy variety, but that the hell; for my money, it was an admittedly no-risk bet that paid off, however modestly. It doesn’t add anything vital to the proceedings, to be sure, but it doesn’t detract, either, and for long-term Shyamalan fans it’s probably offers a nice little thrill. I guess that I could take it or leave it either way, personally, but in a pinch, I’ll take it.
What I can’t take, though, is Split‘s rather disturbing, quasi-fascistic, and poorly-thought-through thesis that Shyamalan drops on us in the form of a “philosophy bomb” that stains an otherwise quite-effective thriller — pain and suffering, you see, aren’t just good, solid “character builders” in his view, but may even show the way forward for human evolution. You read that right : the terrible and debilitating abuse suffered by Kevin and, as it turns out, Casey, isn’t a bad thing — it’s turned them into veritable fucking superhumans. Obviously, this idea can be extrapolated to chilling extremes without much effort : beat your kids, and they’ll grow up to be Superman? Please.
So, yeah — Split was cruising along rather nicely until that horseshit “idea” reared its decidedly ugly head. The end result? A truly “split” decision — this flick is equal parts remarkable and morally and intellectually indefensible.