Split movie review: James McAvoy deserves an Oscar for M Night Shyamalan’s stunner
Director - M Night Shyamalan
Cast - James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula
Rating - 4.5/5
Split has to be the most triumphant film of M Night Shyamalan’s career. It’s one thing to be called a wunderkind, the next Steven Spielberg, to be given carte blanche on your increasingly odd movies, but it’s another thing to have that same, once-promising career sink right before your eyes.
Even Shyamalan, the king of the twist ending, couldn’t have written some of the unexpected detours his life has taken recently. And to make matters worse, a lot of the criticism his recent movies have received, I feel, is utterly unwarranted. Full disclosure: The Village, the film most people note as the beginning of his downward spiral, happens to be one of my favourites of his. As is The Last Airbender, a movie frequently found on several ‘worst of all time’ lists. I can even defend The Happening to anyone willing to listen.
Like the central theme of all his films – spirituality, faith – he trusts his instincts, and stubbornly refuses to fit into the moulds everyone would rather have him occupy. His movies are quiet, contemplative, framed with unmistakable precision, and usually elevated by some of composer James Newton Howard’s best work.
Say what you will about any of these movies, but you can’t deny the fact that Shyamalan always swings for the fences. He is one of the few directors working today who brings a unique style to his movies – even the ones for which he is just a hired gun (Even I can’t defend After Earth). The sheer raw talent that he has for constructing a scene, pacing, composition, and toying with the audience’s emotions is unparalleled.
Long story short, when Shyamalan became the laughing stock of the industry for a while, personally, as someone who had grown up on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and Signs, it was infuriating.
And Spilt, for better or for worse, is classic M Night Shyamalan. It’s his most purely entertaining movie in years.
In a perfect world, a fair world, it would have opened in December and James McAvoy would almost certainly have been up for serious awards consideration – such is the greatness of what he has achieved here. But in a perfect world, Night wouldn’t have shot his career in the foot.
McAvoy plays Kevin, a victim of childhood abuse who has slipped into a deep state of dissociative identity disorder in which, as a coping mechanism, he has created 23 distinct personalities, some of which are more sinister than the others. And in the opening scene of the film, one of his particularly menacing avatars kidnaps three young girls and locks them up in an underground cellar.
McAvoy’s performance here is nothing short of extraordinary. True, we don’t get to see each of the 23 personalities, but Shyamalan wisely chooses to develop only a handful of them. It’s a role that positively demands a scenery-chewing, over-the-top performance, and that is exactly what McAvoy delivers. Often, he is required to switch between the sinister Dennis and Patricia to the more innocent Hedwig and Barry, usually on a dime, and one on memorable occasion, in the same scene. As you can imagine, it could all have gone horribly wrong, but somehow, thanks in most part to Shyamalan’s absolute control over his material, there isn’t a moment where the tension lets out.
It’s no secret that Shyamalan is an admirer of Alfred Hitchcock’s, going so far as to give himself little cameos in all his films. Split is perhaps the most Hitchcockian of them all: tight, claustrophobic, and when it needs to be, completely and utterly bonkers. It’s the sort of film that can – like McAvoy’s character – switch effortlessly between white-knuckle thrills, gory horror, and when you least expect it, grotesque, morbid humour.
Shyamalan plays into our fears, the incomprehensible, the unknown, of what we do not understand – in this case, mental illness. It’s a controversial stance to take, made more dubious by how the film mines the backstory given to Anya Taylor-Joy’s character (she plays one of the captives and a lot of the story is told through her perspective), but I believe that ultimately, while these narrative choices are questionable, for the sort of film this is, they work.
Fair warning: If you are bothered by even the most minor spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, but if you aren’t, by all means, carry on.
After almost a dozen films with a dozen twist endings, Shyamalan has done something incredible with this one. It’s his best one since his best one, The Sixth Sense – and it isn’t even a ‘twist ending’ in the traditional sense. At this point, understandably, we’re all expecting a Shyamalan movie to end with a surprise, so now, the challenge is not to merely deliver on those expectations but to subvert them. It is a challenge that only he could have overcome.
As a few familiar notes of James Newton Howard’s music began playing, and as the camera gracefully glided towards a revelation, I let out an audible gasp.
And that has never happened. Ever.
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