It may be hard for some to pick the lowest moment in M. Night Shyamalan’s career. After all, this is a man who made Marky Mark run from the wind in a movie where plants are the baddies and let Will Smith commit a linguistic hate crime with his accent in After Earth. Yet nothing screams, “Tell me I’m a special boy and love me,” so much as the time Shyamalan created a character in The Lady in the Water who was a film critic and repugnant douche-nozzle, killed him brutally and then also cast himself as a writer who saves the world with the power of his words.
As much as you’d like to, you can’t talk about Shyamalan’s work without talking about Shyamalan’s person. That’s on him. His early insistence on proclaiming himself an auteur before his filmography fully supported it, his continued demands that his name get pre-title billing and his hyperbolic self-praise in interviews prevent a truly objective review of his artistic output independent of his persona. Thus, his latest, Split, is destined to be judged only in context. Happily, it marks a welcomed return to the slightly silly, quasi-preposterous pop entertainment he targeted before wishing his name into a franchisable brand.
In Split, James McAvoy plays a man with dissociative identity disorder, commonly referred to as “multiple personalities.” Some of those personalities are bad and orchestrate the kidnapping of three girls. One of those girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), is particularly resilient, owing to previous and ongoing icky trauma. Because this is Shyamalan, he gets science-fiction all up in his science, as McAvoy’s character undergoes different physical changes with each identity, ranging from health problems (like diabetes) to health boons (like being a nigh-invulnerable, muscled, ceiling-climbing cannibal). The bulk of the running time is a simple “can the captives escape” thriller, punctuated with some nice claustrophobic suspense.
McAvoy is pretty damn great; he soft-shoes the narrow gap between completely laughable and B-movie sincerity. Clearly self-aware of what’s being asked of him, McAvoy never translates that to insulting the audience with a tongue-in-cheek performance. Taylor-Joy is capable but, without spoiling things, is somewhat denied the resolution her character earns. Meanwhile, Shyamalan is as restrained as he’s ever been, barely even winking-and-nodding at the audience as if to say, “Ain’t I clever? Well?! Ain’t I?!!”
One of the criticisms leveled against Split has been its use of a psychological condition as a villainous device. That’s often a fair criticism, but the inherent silliness of this depiction prevents it from making any salient implication about real-world mental health; it’d be like extrapolating legitimate psychiatric advice from Lucy in Peanuts. The explicitly nonsensical version of the disorder is only further distanced from reality via the “twist” ending.
Yes, he did the twist again. Thankfully, this one lands, not because of how it informs the content of the film but because of the “meta” implications that stem from it. The temptation after watching each new Shyamalan movie is to declare him either “back” or “washed up.” Split isn’t a guarantee of future greatness but is unquestionably an explicit desire to return to the type of entertainment he once promised. For a man with a single letter as a first name, it’s a good initial start.
This review previously appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Nebraska.