SPLIT (2017)

Fifteen years in the wilderness. For people like me who were unabashed Shyamalan fans up until Signs, that was what it was like going into Split. I had low expectations and as a result, I was quite taken aback with how effective (and affecting) this film is. At the beginning, there’s a scene that teases out thick suspense with the delayed reveal of a stranger who has assumed the driver’s position in a parked car. It’s the same feeling the audience undergoes insofar as it realizes there’s a new Shyamalan behind the wheel—or rather, that the old Shyamalan has returned.

In the passenger’s seat, a troubled teen, played by Anna Taylor-Joy, fumbles for the door handle. She’s observant and smart, but she can’t escape going along for the ride, and neither can we. It’s as if no time has elapsed and Shyamalan has you right back in the palm of his hand like he did a decade and a half before.

This is James McAvoy’s best performance. Let’s get that right out of the way. Playing Kevin Wendell Crumb, a man with disassociative identity disorder who is capable of changing his very body chemistry with his thoughts as he shifts between multiple personalities, McAvoy pulls off an astonishing feat in this movie.

Forget the vain old actors’ challenge of playing twins. The closing credits list McAvoy as playing eight different characters, and it’s wholly earned. He imbues each of Kevin’s personalities — collectively known as “The Horde” — with different voices and mannerisms. Costume changes do occur, including a throwback to Psycho where McAvoy dons a dress for another momentous reveal, but it’s not needed, because you can tell the personalities apart from their body language. At one point, the camera even just hones in on his face, panning back and forth between it and the mirror as he stands there talking to his own reflection, like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.

In his spot-on review of the film from its premiere at Fantastic Fest in 2016, /Film’s own Jacob Hall called Split “weirdly empathetic.” People have accused the movie of stigmatizing mental illness, but as someone who has struggled with varying degrees of neurosis for the better part of his life — social anxiety, obsessive-compulsiveness, compulsive overeating, all that good stuff — Split hit me on a wavelength where I felt like it had indeed forged a weird empathy. The film takes pains to show how relative our idea of sanity is, as even a seemingly “normal” neighbor might be prone to making impulse teleshopping buys. It’s a movie that recognizes what Session 9, another good psychological horror film, called “the weak and the wounded.” Yet it also recognizes that the very thing that leaves you feeling cursed and alienated can sometimes be a great gift.

Gifts can be misused, of course. That’s the tragedy at play in Split, which crescendos in a man taking bullets and prying metal bars open with his bare hands before giving an absurd, primal, cathartic yell of, “Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved!” Like Bullseye in Daredevil, Season 3, Kevin’s got a good therapist looking out for him, someone who is deeply intuitive and caring and who really understands him the way no one else does. Ultimately, however, it’s not enough, and we see him taking the opposite path of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Shutter Island, who famously posited, “Which would be worse: to live as a monster, or die as a good man?”

Wikipedia defines an exploitation film as “a film that attempts to succeed financially by exploiting current trends, niche genres, or lurid content.” Split ticks all of those boxes. The current trend is shared-universe superhero movies. The niche genre is that of the thriller, which is where Shyamalan flourishes best. The lurid content includes kidnapped girls, the threat of rape, and a backstory involving sexual abuse and cutting—some of which is implied rather than shown, thereby allowing the movie to slide in under a PG-13 rating. Pulpy as it is, it all adds up to a thoroughly engrossing movie: one that stands head and shoulders above anything Shyamalan has done since Signs.

GLASS (2019) AND BEYOND

If there any lesson to be learned from M. Night Shyamalan’s career over the last twenty years, its that somewhere along the way, his own sense of pride maybe got too wrapped up in his storytelling. His movies began to take on a reactive feel, as if they were contending with an anticipated response, making the wrong narrative chess moves while engaging in a losing battle of wits with the audience. Lady in the Water showed that he wasn’t immune to criticism. Now we’ve arrived at the week of Glass, a movie named for a character whose outward physique — much like Shyamalan’s body of work — renders him the opposite of impervious.

The word out of advanced screenings hasn’t been kind to Glass. Indeed, the first crop of online reviews, including our own, has struck a decidedly disappointed tone, with some critics going so far as to suggest that the movie somehow undoes the legacy of Unbreakable. As someone who’s rooting for Shyamalan and his trilogy capper to succeed, that makes me apprehensive. In light of certain plot elements shared by Split — not to mention the fact that Crumb’s “Beast” was born on an Amtrak train, just like David Dunn — it almost makes me wonder if Shyamalan is planning on giving Glass the same twist as the 2003 film Identity (no spoilers, but if you’ve seen that film, you’ll know what I mean).

Even if we get a cop-out like that, however, no amount of later retconning in subpar sequels can truly diminish the effect of the original. At worst, this will be a Godfather, Part III situation. The funny thing is, though it’s less esteemed now, The Godfather, Part III originally marked something of a comeback for Francis Ford Coppola. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and Coppola would follow it up with the similarly high-profile Bram Stoker’s Dracula, before he started to misfire and fade from the limelight again.

Whether or not that’s what happens with Shyamalan, his story is also one where a talented director seems to have been undone by his own overweening pride. Those of us who were once in his corner, or still are, can only hope the broken filmmaker will continue to pick up the pieces of his career and reconstitute himself as a better artist, one with a thicker skin. If the Beast can take bullets, we should all be able to suffer the slings and arrows of a little criticism.

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