SPLIT (2017, PG-13, 117 minutes, BLUMHOUSE/BLINDING EDGE PICTURES)
A long time ago—it’s been fifteen years since SIGNS was released—M. Night Shyamalan put out some darn good yarns.
Then came THE VILLAGE, and I started referring to him as “M. Night Shamalamadingdong. He directed a few stinkers, then disappeared for a bit. He seemed to lose not his voice, but his effectiveness at expressing it. Which was a shame; his first three efforts (THE SIXTH SENSE, UNBREAKABLE, and SIGNS) were excellent films reminiscent of Hitchcock and a time when you could tell a smart, surprising, and intelligent story without getting wrapped up in the typical foibles of Hollywood.
Then he hit a period of mediocrity, which seemed to finish him. He started producing films, (check out DEVIL, an interesting and entertaining piece about people trapped on an elevator with a killer) and seemed to disappear from the limelight.
With SPLIT, he propels himself right back into the limelight. This is like a love letter to Hitchcock in his use of a small yet effective cast, and the minimal sets (at times, it is reminiscent of ROPE in the way he makes you familiar with the details of the surroundings, even though he uses a few more sets here than Hitchcock did in his 1948 classic) which make up the majority of the film. He also keeps to his idea that the violence you experience off-screen is more dramatic than it ever could be if he showed you every gritty detail. I enjoy gore just as much as the next horror fan, but one of my favorite scenes out of any of his films came in UNBREAKABLE when he literally turns the camera away from the violence and utilizes sound to illustrate the brutality of a situation.
Casting James McAvoy as “Barry”, a man with twenty-four different personalities, is a stroke of genius. His performance is detailed, subtle when it needs to be, and scary when you least expect it. The rest of the cast is good, but it is McAvoy who carries this film on his lunatic shoulders. He brings the tension and dramatic drive into every room he enters. Of course, it is a performance that will go unnoticed by the Academy come next year’s Oscars, but rest assured—he has automatic job security (as if he even needed it—he does a kick ass Charles Xavier, you know) with his job here.
The visual story you are watching might not have turned out the same way with a different cinematographer. Mike Gioulakis, whose magnificent eyeballs added so much sinister effect to IT FOLLOWS, does a masterful job in the confined spaces of the dungeon Barry & Company keep the captured girls in (to be sacrificed to “The Beast”, the twenty-fourth and most abominable of his personalities). There are some shots captured here that will stay with you long after the film has ended—this is the mark of not only a good story, but also of a cinematographer capable of interpreting the creepy confines of the writer/director’s brain.
Of course you know there is going to be a classic Shyamalan twist. You may think you have it figured out. But you don’t. Trust me on this; I had the twist in SENSE figured out about halfway through, and this one hit me like a ton of bricks at the reveal. Regular readers know I don’t do spoilers, and I’m not going to start now. But HOLY CRAP, it’s AWESOME.
It is good to see Shyamalan getting back to his roots. The tale he tells with SPLIT is a confident return to the gritty eloquence he perfected so long ago. Glad you got your swagger back, dude. Now don’t make another movie about trees making people kill themselves, and we’ll be okay.