Since bursting onto the scene with The Sixth Sense, making its director graduate of the class of 1999, that year when Hollywood and American cinema gave us loads of amazing films, M Night Shyamalan has had a very bumpy career. Yet such were the clout of his third and fourth movies (he made two forgotten indie dramas before hitting the big time), he has rode out critical derision like a gnarly surfer dude, and not given two hoots.
Why? Because while critics have routinely eviscerated his work – sometimes fairly – his films have either scraped back enough money not to affect his position too much, or done booming business. Even The Last Airbender – hello, six per cent Rotten Tomatoes score – doubled its costly budget at the box office.
What’s the big surprise, then? Split is easily Shyamalan’s strongest movie since Unbreakable back in 2000. In some ways, it’s as if the director has gone back to basics or rediscovered what it was that made him such a breakout name. Shyamalan might have gotten too hopped up on the ‘New Hitchcock’ tag that was banded around way back when, but Split represents the director’s A-game, and showcases his talent for fantastical storytelling grounded in the everyday.
The big twist here is that he has not only made a top movie; it’s satisfying on all fronts. From James McAvoy’s multiple personas – he’s playing a guy with dissociative identity disorder – to the clever plot structuring and the genuine thrill at not knowing where the story is going.
Kevin (McAvoy) kidnaps young women. One day in a car park, he takes three teenaged girls and locks them up in a desolate room. What he wants from them is initially unclear, but one frightened victim is taken away and returns crying, saying the kidnapper wanted to watch her dance naked.
The trio are further weirded out when ‘Kevin’ returns seemingly dressed as a woman named Patricia, speaking in an English accent and being all firm but fair. Then they meet Hedwig, a nine-year-old with a lisp who loves dancing to hip-hop and takes a shine to Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), who he asks, in one very creepy scene, if he can kiss her. Oh, and there’s Dennis, the dominant voice/personality, and he talks to the girls about them being ‘sacred food’ for ‘The Beast’.
McAvoy excels in the lead role. Whether he’s playing the bashful Hedwig or camp fashionista Barry, he is mesmerising. This is an extraordinary showcase of his skills. Furthermore, the film doesn’t make light of mental illness or use it as a crass narrative device. The subtext of Split is incredibly poignant and bravely drawn.
That it’s also a gripping thriller in the finest Hollywood tradition, with shifting timelines, revelations and a very surprising third act, also demonstrates that Shyamalan is master craftsman who maybe just needed to reignite the creative light within him once again. Whatever it is that led to him writing and directing Split, he complemented the project by casting the perfect actor for the lead.
It goes well beyond Eddie Murphy putting on fat suits, Peter Sellers doing his comedy shtick for Stanley Kubrick or Alec Guinness dragging up in Kind Hearts And Coronets, McAvoy essentially raises the bar to new lofty heights.