Split review: by Rob Stoakes
UK certification: 15
It would be like M. Night Shyamalan to throw an out-of-nowhere, poorly telegraphed plot twist into reality itself.
There he was. Hollywood’s very own Icarus. Once called the new Stanley Kubrick after two knockout classics and one overrated but still alright flick, now one of the most popular punchlines in cinema history, a man who has no editing process in his own head and will let any idea get to paper without consideration of its worth.
It is a cautionary tale of what happens when an artist is told so early in his career that he is untouchable, and then continues to believe it long after the rest of the world changes its mind.
SURPRISE PLOT TWIST! Out of nowhere, M. Night Shyamalan makes his best film in years. And it’s not because he barely has anything to do with it either; it’s got all of his hallmarks. Taking a real thing and turning it into pseudo-spiritual magic mumbo jumbo, a protagonist who’s thrown into the middle of it without a clue of what’s going on, a little old lady, something threatening yet non-descript, discussions about humanity’s potential and the soul and whoooOOOoooOOOooo, people walking upstairs. It is all here! And he didn’t mess it up!
Ok, the total surprise is completely unfair. I to this day insist that M. Night Shyamalan is a really good technical director and can tell even a horrible story well. The worst films in his oeuvre are Devil, which he didn’t direct OR write, After Earth, which had Will Smith make all of the decisions, and The Last Airbender, which he… umm… err… ok, you got me on that one.
Still, if you mine the idea caves for long enough you’ll eventually hit a good one, and a kidnapper with multiple personalities with some of them attempting to unleash a super evil personality that is either the Devil, his dad or one of the Woozels from Winnie the Pooh? That’s a doozy of an idea, especially for actors. Actors salivate over projects like this, where they have to portray lots of different characters while chewing scenery like they’ve turned into lions that only survive on the set designer’s tears. Enter James McAvoy.
So James McAvoy has a very difficult task. Not the portraying multiple people in the same body thing, although that in itself is very impressive. No, the hard bit is that he has to, without any dialogue to justify it, make every one of his actions make sense. The problem with a character suffering a mental disability is that it’s easy to handwave leaps of logic as “he’s cer-razy” which can undermine the reality and the threat of your villain.
There is a logic progression and motive to genuine insanity, and the insanity just comes from the lack of connection to the real world. McAvoy pulls it off perfectly and makes what could’ve been groan-worthy into a relatable, sympathetic, sometimes silly but always threatening presence, and it’s a sight to behold.
McAvoy isn’t the only actor, of course. Anya Taylor-Joy has to play an anchor to McAvoy’s oddball acting, and she does well to bring a lot of weight to her mostly bland part to play, especially as Shyamalan takes the character to a really dark place and she needs to both build and carry the character on from it without missing a beat. Everyone else in the cast is a bit bland, mostly because their characters have no role aside from being the mini spring rolls at the climatic death buffet.
Now the only missing ingredient is good direction, and M. Night Shyamalan’s status as the favoured whipping boy of every critic in the world means that we’ve forgotten that he is really good with the technicals. The cinematography and the choice of music all pull the audience into a tense state and really heighten the mood. It’s not as good as Sixth Sense, few films are, but this is a return to form that is almost even more annoying than any of his other films. How dare he waste our time with The Village when he had this film waiting in the wings!
Budget: $10 million/Music: West Dylan Thordson/Length: 117 minutes
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
It’s an M. Night Shyamalan film. Run for the hills! Of course, ten years ago we’d be saying the exact opposite of the once adored film-maker. Dubbed the new Hitchcock by many, his films including The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs heralded a bold, exciting new time for cinema.
However, Split is a thrilling return to form for a director who had all but lost his mojo. With a spell-binding performance from James McAvoy and a very well-written script, this is a film that highlights the art of film-making in a simple fashion; one that shows you don’t need a massive budget to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.