'Split' Is A Return To Form For M. Night Shyamalan And A Wild Showcase For James McAvoy

(This review originally ran after Split's first screening at Fantastic Fest 2016. It arrives in theaters today.)

Every filmmaker finds themselves in a rough patch every now and again, but few directors have had quite as public a rough patch as M. Night Shyamalan. It wasn't enough that the immensely talented director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs was stumbling with duds like The Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender – his name had become synonymous with disappointment for many moviegoers. He had become a punchline.

But now, it's looking like Shyamalan has started to get his groove back. The Visit was one of last year's more pleasant surprises and now Split, which held its world premiere as part of a secret screening at Fantastic Fest, has seemingly revealed his future going forward: he's going to keep on making low-budget horror movies until someone tells him to stop. If his latest film is any indication, few people are going to tell him to stop anytime soon.

While The Visit found Shyamalan playing around with found footage horror, Split is instantly recognizable as one of his movies from the very first scene, where three young women (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, and Jessica Sula) are abducted in a parking lot by a bruiser of a man (James McAvoy) with mysterious intentions. His camera, self-aware and playful, is placed in the exact right place to obscure the thing everyone onscreen should be worried about. Reveals are drawn out, treated as major events within the context single scene or even a single shot. Much ink has been spilled about Shyamalan's penchant for twist endings, but this line of thinking also informs so much of his actual filmmaking, as even character introductions or expository dialogue is framed as a surprise, treated like a gift that is slowly unwrapped.

Since this is an M. Night Shyamalan movie, Split isn't just a "young girls in peril" movie. Although all three victims are taken to a secret lair and locked in a makeshift prison, they soon learn that their abductor isn't just a typical madman. He has 23 separate personalities, each of them completely different than the others, and a few of them have essentially come out on top in an unseen psychological civil war over control of their body. These alpha personalities know that a 24th personality, which they have dubbed "the Beast," is manifesting and that these three girls will be necessary to satiate its appetite.

This means McAvoy is tasked with playing numerous characters in Split, including an uptight brute with OCD, a manipulative posh woman, and a lisping nine-year-old child. It's a testament to McAvoy that each personality is so completely different, with the Scottish actor adopting a different voice and posture for each personality. Being able to instantly recognize which personality McAvoy is portraying based entirely on body language is perhaps the most amusing aspect of the entire movie. In fact, McAvoy is the number one reason to seek out Split because this material truly allows him to swing for the fences and go big in a way he never has before. Not every choice is completely successful, but we're talking about Cloud Atlas-ian levels of performance bravery here. Tasked with something deranged and impossible, McAvoy swings for the fences and it's frequently astonishing.

And, if we're going to be completely honest, it's going to launch a thousand think pieces. Shyamalan's treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder is insensitive at best. While this is great for the film's low-budget, exploitation film bonafides, it will be an area that some viewers rightfully will not be able to look past.

The movie wrapped around McAvoy doesn't quite live up to the grand ambition of his performance. It's a small movie, set almost entirely in a series of rooms in a basement, and there are stretches where Shyamalan seems to be spinning his wheels and wasting time so he can propel us into the grand finale.  It doesn't help that Richardson and Sula don't contribute much to the movie, existing mostly to scream and cry and stand around in their underwear.

However, Taylor-Joy, who was nothing short of outstanding in The Witch earlier this year, makes for a strong protagonist. Her character's dark past, revealed in flashbacks, initially feels exploitative and gross before it is suddenly revealed to be the entire crux of the movie. That's actually Split in a nutshell – what looks like a nasty exploitation picture is actually something slicker, stranger, and more weirdly empathetic. The dynamic between McAvoy and Taylor-Joy takes far too long to reveal itself, but it's very satisfying when it does.

Shyamalan's defining traits, both positive and not, are on display: his occasionally wooden dialogue, scenes where characters have quiet, measured conversations that avoid talking about what they should be talking about, moments of genuine dread, a surprising amount of (effective!) comedy, and yes, an ending that will get a lot of people talking. It's not quite a twist, and it will be lost on many, many moviegoers, but it's an exciting, ambitious beat that elicited an audibly excited response from the Fantastic Fest crowd.

While Split is just intense enough and just weird enough and just surprising enough, the film is best summed up by a sequence where McAvoy, playing his nine-year-old personality, dances in his room. This high-concept thriller pushes pause for a probably-too-long scene that exists simply because Shyamalan seemingly thinks kids (and adults acting like kids) and rap music is the funniest combination in the world. It's not a traditional choice. It will annoy as many people as it amuses. It is the kind of scene that wouldn't have made it to the final cut if anyone else was behind the camera. It's Shyamalan at his most indulgent, at his most Shyamalan-ian. And at his best and his worst, there really isn't anyone quite like him.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10