For quite sometime now, (atleast until the release of ‘The Visit’), M. Night Shyamalan had been a director whose name film-fans loved to ridicule, a name that had been synonymous with, ‘a talented individual who is now a shadow of his former self’ (especially after such duds such as‘After Earth’, ‘The Happening’ and ‘The Last Airbender’). This was particularly sad for me to come to terms with, as M. Night Shyamalan’s best work tended to be some of my favourite films of all time, especially such gems such as ‘Unbreakable’ and ‘The Sixth Sense’.
So it is with complete and utter happiness that I say that Split, after 2015’s very entertaining ‘The Visit’, is Shyamalan’s confirmation of a return to form. It is also, quite possibly, his best film since ‘Unbreakable’ and easily one of my favourite films of 2017 by far.
The film revolves around 3 girls kidnapped by Kevin, a man with DID (Disassociative Identity Disorder) (played by James McAvoy), a psychological handicap that gives him split personalities (23 to be exact), ranging from a 9-year old boy called Hedwig to a tough-but-soft-spoken woman called Patricia to even a flamboyant fashion designer called Barry. Our main protagonist is one of the 3 kidnapped girls, Casey (played by Anya-Taylor Joy), who holds dark secrets of her own. If you’re unable to tell, I’m keeping the plot as barebones as possible, but I will say that those who’re familiar with Shyamalan’s previous work are going to be pretty pleased with this film. And that’s an understatement if there ever was one.
The true standout here, without a doubt, is James McAvoy’s performance as Kevin. In fact, his performance is so impressive that I only wish that the Academy keeps this film in mind when voting for the 2018 nominees. McAvoy switches between each of the multiple personalities he portrays with ease, and sometimes, his performance is so incredulous that you soon know which personality he’s portraying simply through his facial expressions with not a single word being said. In a lot of ways, this performance is extremely brave, and is one that could’ve very easily become camp or over-the-top under a lesser director and actor. Anya-Taylor Joy’s performance as Casey is excellent as well, with a subtle and more assured performance that fits the character and her story.
In the end though, none of the aforementioned performances would work if the film around them was weak and in that regard, I guess it’s safe to say that the true star of this film is M. Night Shyamalan himself. He is without a doubt one of the bravest directors working and while walking out of the cinema after watching this film, I found myself reeling with excitement and shock from what i had just witnessed. He injects the film with a brilliant mixture of terror, humour and heart that surprised me in very unexpected ways, all of them good.
The camerawork in the film screams classic Shyamalan, with his preference to use close-ups, long takes, zooms and slow pans on full display here, allowing the film to have an old-fashioned, Hitchcockian yet completely unique quality that you’d be hard-pressed to find in today’s theatres. His directorial style allows the already incredible performances to truly shine, allowing us, the audience to pick up on subtle details that a lesser director would just skim over. It also lets us truly feel claustrophobic and brings in a pervading sense of dread that doesn’t let go till the final frame.
The soundtrack by West Dylan Thordson deserves a mention as well, with his compositions, while perfectly fitting the situations on-screen, works extremely well by itself. A collection of ambient sounds mixed with traditional orchestra, the music is eclectic to say the least, and completely memorable.
With Split, Shyamalan has proven just how effective he can be when on a smaller budget and with no studio meddling with his vision. I can only hope that he continues to make such films in the future because quite simply, when M. Night Shyamalan is at his best, he has proven himself to be a force to be reckoned with.