When I was thirteen years old my mother took me to see Signs. The tense mystery of the inevitable alien invaders set to Mihaj Night Shyamalan’s meandering fate-bound story sparked a light in my stomach, thus beginning my love affair with the American-Indian director. It was not all happily after ever though, as I’m sure fans of M. Night are well aware. He followed up with The Village, which accrued a mixed critical opinion. His next, Lady In The Water, is where that slope started to get a little slippy. The Happening. The Last Airbender (oh god). After Earth. The Visit. Flop after flop which left you shaking your head, wondering where all that talent had gone.
No more were the glory days of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, replaced with self-absorbed vanity trips rammed with atrocious dialogue and laughable resolutions. I always gave him another chance though. I clung onto that day in the movie theatre with my mother, absorbing the masterpiece that is Signs and hoped for Shyamalan to rise from the ashes. And with Split, he’s pushed off the debris of thirteen years of failure and climbed back to form.
It opens on a teenage birthday party, a loud shriek of excited females is heard as we focus on Casey Cook (Anya Taylor-Joy) at the end of the table, isolated. Her parents are stuck in traffic and won’t be able to pick her up, luckily the father of the birthday girl offers her a ride home (but Daaaad, do we have to give HER a ride home?). The girls pile into the car and an altercation between father and an unknown assailant occurs. By the same time the next day, the teenagers would find themselves in a manufactured jail room, prisoners to the multiple personality Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy). Shyamalan succeeds in not following a linear story from here, instead opting to focus on Crumb’s ongoing fight from within himself as four different personalities fight for control of his mind.
Where Split differs from Shyamalan’s more recent failings is its patience; conjuring slow, tense, suffocating visuals layered with a driving, haunting score which captures the mania of Crumb. The success of Crumb’s ever-changing character is not only achieved by a career-defining display from McAvoy, but from the close action camera work of cinematographer, Mike Gioulakis, who seemed to be never more than a foot from McAvoy’s face, capturing the creepily placid facial movements of Crumb’s characters. As we delve deeper into Crumb we discover that there are not only twenty-three characters that inhibit his mind, but twenty-four. And that personality isn’t as human as the rest; I think the girls better find a way out quick.
The idea of fate has never been too far from Shyamalan’s films and Split is no different. Casey’s childhood altercation with her lingering uncle and a shotgun intertwining with the films gruesome third act, a niche we’ve grown to expect from Shyamalan. Thankfully he doesn’t go over the top as he has been known to do in the past, trusting McAvoy’s presence and ability to scream out the conclusion for him, and McAvoy is where Split’s success ultimately owes thanks to. The ease at which James conjures his characters very different personalities and disorders is what captivates the audience into investing time in Split’s somewhat mediocre story.
However, fans of Shyamalan will be pleased with the films outcome. Triggering a return to form for the director they will be excited to see what’s next in store. For fans of Friday night jump-scare horror, I’d look elsewhere.