M. Night Shyamalan is one of the most fascinating filmmakers out there. He’s practically the definition of hit and miss, but no matter the quality, his films are always intriguing. With his well received 2015 release The Visit and now 2017’s Split, people have been murmuring about a return to form for the modern twist ending king. The thing is, out of the now ten films he’s directed, only his first three were really considered good and the rest of varying quality. No matter how low that quality gets, though, it doesn’t keep us audiences from returning for his next bizarre endeavor.

Split follows Kevin (James McAvoy) a man with 23 distinct personalities inhabiting his mind, which is actually a severe case of dissociative identity disorder. As one personality attempts to occasionally work things out with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), his other personalities have more sinister motives. As one personality, Barry, he kidnaps three teenage girls and holds them hostage in his residence, claiming they’re to be used for a great purpose. Kevin, and his many minds, now must juggle with living his normal life, and doing his best to keep the women from escaping.

From the clearly Hitchcock inspired opening scene and credits of this film, I was completely hooked. The deep, booming score set a beautifully tense and disturbing atmosphere, and I was on board for a great, original thriller. Unfortunately, my investment and comprehension of the events slowly waned. Shyamalan is fantastic idea man, but often falters in his execution. I honestly had hardly any idea of what was happening during the film, but it’s difficult to talk about specifically without spoiling anything. I admit that I am possibly partially at fault with not understanding most of this, but as the film stands on its own, I thought it was quite incoherent. I wanted to figure out what was happening, but ended up mostly scratching my head throughout. For every strong, directorial choice M. Night makes, he makes a few bizarre ones. I’ve never seen one of his films where I didn’t say, “What?” in confusion at least once. What could have been a taut thriller devolves into complete nonsense by the end.

If it weren’t for the wonderful performances, this all would have been a total loss for me. I think James McAvoy is one of the most underrated actors out there, and he’s an absolute powerhouse here, playing not just one, but several distinct performances. Although it’s clearly a bald headed McAvoy in different costumes, he gives each personality their own character, making them all fully realized performances. No matter if it’s the psychotic Dennis, the childish Hedwig, or the kind and motherly Patricia; each personality feels completely different from the others, complete with little quirks and mannerisms for each one. It’s a really brilliant performance that McAvoy pulls off perfectly, and his performance and magnificently crafted character really carry the whole film. Anya Taylor-Joy, who made a big impression with 2016’s ‘The Witch’, is fantastic, as well, providing us our emotional core for the film. She carries herself with a realistic confidence, but conveys that she’s hiding a lot of trauma underneath. She works as a nice foil to McAvoy’s craziness, and makes for a more than capable “final girl” near the end. She’s a stunning young actress that should have a long career ahead of her.

I’m not sure what “return to form” this is supposed to be for Shyamalan, because with Split, his form is still the same as it’s ever been. He certainly has his own distinct style of filmmaking, even if it doesn’t always work. He can expertly stage and direct a horror scene, with a wonderful use of shadows and darkness, but he always mixes it in with bizarre comedy with a dash of schlock. It often comes off as very tonally inconsistent, and I never really know what he’s really trying to go for. The guy certainly knows how to grab your attention, but when he tries to keep it, I usually end up not caring, and even worse, laughing by the end of it. While it doesn’t always work for me, I’d rather have a fresh, yet inconsistent mess, than something safe and generic. Without him, we wouldn’t have such amazing comedies like The Happening, or The Last Airbender, so it’s not always for naught. He does what a filmmaker should do: take risks and try something different. Just keep being you, M. Night. Just keep being you.


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