When I was a little boy I might not have known much about M. Night Shyamalan, but the one thing I did know was his name spelled fear with a capital Bruce Willis. Now call me crazy, but even from a young age I just had a sixth sense that this guy was going to be a big deal. While he did indeed become one, Shyamalan’s career has been marred by quite the herky-jerky. His ups and downs became legendary as he slowly (to some rapidly) slipped into a downward spiral, eventually into obscurity. However, in 2015 he made a triumphant return to the independent scene with The Visit – a perfectly decent little thriller that was like holy wine compared to After Earth. Byuck. Now Shyamallama sets his sights on the screen again with his new psychological thriller Split. Is this yet another film that will be Shya-malligned? Or is this a sign of great things to come?
Let’s split from the puns and see what’s happening.
Split is written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) and stars James McAvoy (Filth, X-Men: First Class) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) and follows the story of three teenage girls who are kidnapped and held captive by a man with a metric tonne of split personalities. 23 to be exact, and together they make one stunning performance by James McAvoy. Oh McAvoy, I’ve always liked you but hot damn my good man, can you act! McAvoy is nothing short of brilliant here; taking turns from the sincere to downright unnerving as a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. It’s hard to say how much of this is owed to M. Night’s writing or McAvoy, which is why I’m firmly fixed on both. Shyamalan has clearly written a good script here and McAvoy has clearly thrown himself whole-hog into this role. So with that said I am happy to report that this is – undoubtedly – the best M. Night Shyamalan film since Signs. Now that’s a big deal.
A rare photo of M. Night’s desk; we can see he enjoys tigers, playstation and terrifying nightmare monsters.
Split is just so. Damn. Good. After a string of film failures that loom larger in the public eye than Michael Bay’s vast lack of talent – ohhhh yes I went there – M. Night Shyamalan has restored his reputation AND made one kick-ass thriller in one fell swoop. I haven’t been this happy to say that a film was great since Arrival came out and allowed me to shove my Denis Villeneuve love affair in everyone’s faces. Split is staggeringly well realised in a way that is so subtle and restrained. This reminded me so much of Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Signs in that it was a polished story with tight, insanely well plotted reveals that never come off as showboat-y. This is Shyamalan’s wheelhouse; clever films that are so clever they trick you into thinking you were clever enough to realise they were clever. But you weren’t that clever, not for Shyamalan, and not for Split. I won’t be spoiling diddly squat here but we all know ShyaMulan has a penchant for twists, so naturally I thought I was ready to catch this sucker, and believe me I tried. But try as I might, Split blindsided me in a fantastic way that lay my best hunches to waste. To quote the ’95 Mortal Kombat movie poster: You will be unprepared.
“It just goes on and on!” – Labyrinth, urban utility tunnels edition
Shyamalan’s best work has been the stuff of film legend; with beautifully artful directing and writing that has always had a certain intimacy that I’ve come to associate with M. Night’s style. In Split we see the same powerful storytelling that was on display in The Sixth Sense, the same clever writing that drew us in all those years ago. Shyamalanis Morrisette has returned to his roots in a superb way that is almost too wicked cool to comprehend after such prominent recent failures. Split is smart, thrilling and above all bold in all the right ways. This is possibly the second boldest film Shyamalan has ever made (Lady in the Water takes the cake there) as it so clearly trusts its audience and actors to keep the ride as smooth as possible. Paced to perfection with slow burning dread and a sense of constant unease, Split is constricting in its visuals in much the same way as last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane – the standout thriller of the year. One of my favourite films of recent years is indie horror hit It Follows, which had stunning visuals and distinct style thanks to DP Mike Gioulakis. You can safely assume that I launched through the ceiling when I saw that Split’s cinematography was helmed by the same man – apparently handpicked by Shyamalan himself for the role. This perfect marriage of Shyamalan’s directing and Mike Gioulakis’s gorgeous visuals made Split an awesome cinema experience that I am excited to see topped in 2017.
“Oh Logan, you silly goose. Of course X-Men can wear turtlenecks.”
So as awesome as M. Night Shyamalan is in this triumphant return, Split would be nothing without its actors. Anya Taylor-Joy is great as Casey; the ‘lead’ of our three trapped teen girls who’s temperament and wits are explored through flashbacks in a very personal and revealing way. It’s easy to assume a ‘teen girls taken hostage’ thriller would be by-the-numbers, but here Taylor-Joy throws down a solid performance as a girl with a real backstory that informs her actions in ways that don’t become clear until the close of the film. Split is like that often, feeding you titbits here and there with the promise of it ‘all becoming clear’ in the end, which believe me is worth the wait.
Jessica Sula and the luminous Haley Lu Richardson are fine in their supporting roles as fellow captive teenagers, but are vastly overshadowed by Taylor-Joy’s more fleshed-out role. While overshadowed they may be, an even bigger presence looms large in Split: James McAvoy. Ho. Lee. Cow. James McAvoy delivers a career defining performance here in an acting masterclass that proves a level of acting range that takes most actors a lifetime. Portraying a plethora of personalities, McAvoy is chameleonic in his role; shifting from identity to identity. He is terrifying, unnerving, sweet, heartfelt and then terrifying again. To me this is a performance that would be undoubtedly snubbed by the Academy, but is absolutely deserving of an award. Hands down the best performance of his career, and a strong benchmark for the best performance of 2017. Let’s see someone top Split for best deeply unsettling dance sequence. No, seriously. Watch it and you’ll understand.
James McAvoy spots a basket of puppies. Or an Oscar nomination. Hard to tell which.
Finally we need to mention the music of Split, because scoring is an oft overlooked area that needs some good lovin’. Split doesn’t take the route of a punchy ‘hammer and tongs’ score that reminds you when to be afraid and when to be moved. Instead, Split has a very subtle score that works more like a constantly fluctuating musical cue; creeping into the background unnoticed until the last second and then WHOOP-POW! Okay, not quite as jump scare-y but you get the picture. Split proves that less is more with a score that relies more on building unease and emotion, which are suitably the two sides to Spilt’s structure as a whole. Exceptional though it is, Shyamalan did not have his composer-in-crime – James Newton Howard – return for Split. Instead he took up West Dylan Thordson, the composer hot off the eerie HBO doco series The Jinx. This was yet another personal choice by Shyamalan that shows how much of his old passion is evident in Split.
It’s like Home Improvement, but without the grunting or Tim Allen.
What can I say other than please go to see Split right away. You will not be disappointed. While not a perfect movie, it’s pretty damn close. Shyamalan is back on the jungle gym again, and I think he just kicked sand in the faces of everyone who’d officially laid his career to rest. Split is a ballsy, evocative thriller that is expertly crafted by a master artist returned to life once more. A knockout time at the cinema, an acting masterclass from McAvoy and a welcome return to greatness for M. Night fans everywhere, Split is a slam dunk that stands as the current high point for 2017. M. Night Shyamalan’s back, baby! What a twist!
Split is now showing at cinemas everywhere, so run out and see it right now!
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SUMMARY: Setting the bar high and jumping clear over it, Split is a knockout time at the movies. A thrilling return to form for Shyamalan as he delivers a smart and compelling thriller as good as The Sixth Sense and Signs. James McAvoy gives an Oscar worthy performance in a thriller that knows just the right ways to thrill and chill. A must see.