M. Night Shayamalan is back.
It’s weird to write that.
I’m sure it was weird to read that, but the auteur behind The Happening has given movie goers an exciting film that relied on artfully constructed tension as well as Shayamalan’s insatiable urge to “twist.” This is a return to the toolshed where Shayamalan built well oiled machines like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. With Split, Shayamalan gives the viewer a classic blend of subgenres, a captivity film like P2 and Saw blended with the tropes and trappings of scary religious cult movies like House of the Devil and Rosemary’s Baby. Rather than save his twist for the end, however, Shayamalan put his twist in the premise of film itself: the kidnapper, the cult, and the dark God are all played by one actor, and all hide in the mind of a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder.
The plot follows a group of three teens, Casey (played by The Witch’s Anna Taylor-Joy), Claire, and Marcia, who are kidnapped driving home from a birthday party. The kidnapper (played by James McAvoy) first seems to have sexual motivations, but after his efforts are undone by Casey’s quick thinking, he re-enters the room, wearing a dress, speaking differently, and lets the frightened teens know why they’ve been taken. They’re to be “sacred food” for someone, or some thing, called “The Beast.”
Tension mounts as the film breaks into three stories, following the girls’ struggles to escape, the kidnappers’ therapy sessions, and flashes of Casey’s past. More and more of the kidnapper’s alternate personalities reveal themselves as the three girls seek escape. Dennis, the tidy and assertive identity that took the girls and tried to force them to dance for him, Patricia, the measured and devout follower of the Beast, and Hedwig, the nine-year-old child who loves Kanye West and mispronouncing the word “et cetera.” Finally, the therapist, Casey, and all of these personalities come to a conclusion with the force of a slingshot being pulled back for ninety minutes straight.
Shayamalan builds a world in Split where his heightened sense of character and dialogue makes sense. When I first heard the premise of the film I had my reservations about his centering a horror film around an actual mental illness. But, as with all things M. Night, assumptions are never safe. The film works with those expectations and pushes against them. Casey, as our main character, seems, initially, to operate with traditional wide-eyed terror and paralysis at everything, but is that so? Split certainly wants you, the viewer, to never truly trust what’s on screen, the way we can never really trust the many personalities of James McAvoy’s character. Everything, like Dissociative Identity Disorder itself, can change its perspective in an instant.
Of course, a movie like this would be lost without an actor who can convincingly convey these different identities (the character has twenty-three, not including the mysterious Beast). Thankfully, Shayamalan found James McAvoy. Previously known for his work as Charles Xavier in the First Class run of X-Men films and the gun play graphic-novel-on-screen Wanted, McAvoy wouldn’t seem like he’d be up to the challenge, but there’s a twist.
Boy is he ever. While not striving for realism, McAvoy understands the hightened “hyper-reality” of your average Shayamalan film. He plays “Patricia” like an austere nun from an exploitation film. He plays Dennis like a classic giallo black-gloved serial killer, and he plays Hedwig like a kid from Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The kind of distinct melodramatic edge to each of McAvoy’s character speaks to a powerhouse performance so good you forget it’s happening. All of the many personalities on screen stop being an actor flexing his muscles like a bodybuilder and start being a chorus of dramatized voices roped into something not all of them believe. That’s the thing about McAvoy in this film, he doesn’t make you admire his acting. He doesn’t even make you pity his character. He makes you pity them. All of them.
Anna Taylor-Joy is not to be overlooked, however. While McAvoy puts on a genuine show, Taylor-Joy is the ground Shayamalan’s theatre is built on. The subtle ways that fear and resilience play on her face and in her performance make her one of the most relatable and engaging horror movie protagonists in a while. She calls to mind the classic horror performances from Jamie Lee-Curtis, Sissy Spacek, and Ashley Laurence, these bold Final Girls strapping entire films onto their backs and carrying them up mountains built on their ability to not just act scared, but human.
Split puts us back in the world peak Shayamalan, a man in love with telling us well-crafted, beautifully shot fables. Shayamalan is a modern day Aesop, telling us with The Village not to live in the past, telling us with Signs never to take anything for granted, telling us with Unbreakable that it is never too late to be a hero. For some time, he fell off the path, putting his morals ahead of his craft with the ecological and soporophic The Happening and his unwatchable Avatar: The Last Airbender adaptation.
Now, it seems, the sun has set on all that nonsense, and the M. Night has begun once more with a movie about our assumptions, about fear, about pain, about victimhood, and about his ability to still make a damn good movie.