Could ‘Split’ be M. Night Shyamalan’s return to form? (review)

We all remember that moment when we first saw 1999’s The Sixth Sense, and when it was over, we all had the same thought: “Wait, the doctor was dead the whole time?” Another thought that we all had was somewhere along the lines of that M. Night Shyamalan was some kind of suspense genius, and that everything he’ll do will be incredible. Well, flash forward 16 years and I’m more than certain we’d be regretting those words. The path that Shyamalan has taken in terms of his cinematic career has been a steady and progressive downhill spiral heading for certain doom. From his interesting logic in 2002’s Signs to much more questionable plot lines in just about everything he’s directed from 2004 to 2013. So forgive me if I came into the film a little…hesitant. But trust me when I say, I’m eating (almost) every critical word I’ve said before I saw Shyamalan’s latest thriller, Split.

Though Kevin (James McAvoy), who is suffering from Dissociative identity disorder (DID), has evidenced 23 personalities to his trusted psychiatrist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), there remains one still submerged who is set to materialize and dominate all the others. Compelled to abduct three teenage girls led by the willful, observant Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch), Kevin reaches a war for survival among all of those contained within him—as well as everyone around him—as the walls between his compartments shatter apart.

I think it’s safe to say that Shyamalan has made quite the impression with this film. There’s no other way to put it: this film is actually good! I know this sounds like kind of a cheap shot, but when you’re memory brings up scenes from 2010’s The Last Airbender and 2013’s After Earth, you tend to expect the cars to keep careening off the broken bridge that is this director’s train of thought. Finally, we see a successful reach from one side to the next, in terms of thought process and execution, and can actually walk away from the film with a sense of anticipation. Shyamalan has created a visceral and suspenseful experience that is so jarring, you really hope that you don’t run into James McAvoy in an alley somewhere. And speaking of which…

It’s pretty easy to say that James McAvoy is the star of this film. His ability to not only create the several personas within someone who is dealing with DID but to emulate them perfectly and seamlessly on screen with such a wide range is pretty remarkable. McAvoy goes from being a small 9-year old boy, Hedwig, to the eloquent English woman, Patricia, in the blink of an eye, then suddenly into the stern New Yorker suffering from OCD, Dennis. If ever there was a film that would act as a resume for this actor, this piece would definitely serve as one. Most of us are used to seeing him as the leader of the X-Men, Professor Charles Xavier, and some have seen some of his other roles, such as a personal favorite of mine, 2013’s Filth. This film encapsulates the incredible ability of this actor and allows him to have fun on-screen with every character he has created.

One of the few things that did come up during the course of the film that bothered me was the role of Dr. Fletcher. She, as a character, was not an issue, but rather the amount of screen time she had. Her purpose in the film, just so that you know, is to give the factual evidence behind the disorder, and to help act as an anchor for the film to be grounded in reality. The problem is that the character didn’t have too much sense to do act on her professional duties, such as calling the police when she finds that: A) three teenage girls are abducted, B) one of her patient’s personas is reaching out for help in the middle of the night by email, and C) she finds out that the persona in charge has had a history with underage girls, and is now in charge of all the personas. This creative flow doesn’t make the fullest of sense to me and causes the film to jump out of its touch with reality, causing me, as the viewer, to lose touch, and become disinterested. What would’ve removed this problem would’ve been to remove so much screen time for the character and give the appearance of mystery as to whether or not the doctor may or may not have called the cops. This would’ve added anticipation and a false sense of hope, which, in this case, would’ve changed the whole dynamic of the film.

All in all, the film is a good film. It isn’t his greatest, but it isn’t his worst. The film does, however, bring Shyamalan out from his funk, and the ending does bring things sort of full circle, in terms of his previous films. The one thing that fans will always lament is whether or not he will ever be as good as he was when he made 1999’s The Sixth Sense, and I actually have an answer to that: no. He won’t. He will never be as good as he was when that film came out. I’m not disrespecting the man, nor am I tearing down his legacy; I’m setting the adequate bar. A new standard, if you will. M. Night Shyamalan will never be as good as he was when he created that supernatural classic, but there’s a possibility that he may become better. There’s a chance that he may hit new heights, or he may drop to new depths.

The Sixth Sense was, to an extent, lightning in a bottle. The film’s success not only lied within the uniqueness of the film, but also the time in which cinema was in, and the age in which the world was in. You can’t recreate those moments, as they’re gone and past. You can, however, recreate the opportunity and encouragement that surrounded that film, the kind that would cause a filmmaker, such as Shyamalan- and others like him- to be pushed in the right direction, and create that lightning-in-a-bottle moment, wowing audiences once again. This film, Split, is definitely a huge step in the right direction.

Rating: 3.5/5 Atoms

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