M. Night Shyamalan occupies a strange and unique cultural space. Following the “inspirational” family dramedy Wide Awake (which I’ve never seen, and which, like the first few Michael Jackson solo albums, seems to have been stricken from the public consciousness), Shyamalan burst onto the scene in 1999 with his sophomore feature The Sixth Sense. The Sixth Sense was an honest-to-god cultural phenomenon, sporting an instant catchphrase (“I see dead people!”), a performance for the ages in young Haley Joel Osment, and a genuinely shocking twist ending. With each subsequent film, however, Shyamalan’s cultural currency steadily diminished, until he devolved into a walking punchline (I’m not positive, but I think the turning point may have been the ridiculous Sci Fi Channel special he made about how he’s actually Space Jesus). M. Night bottomed out in the early 2000s with a pair of work-for-hire pictures, the Will-and-Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth and the colossally misguided Nickelodeon adaptation The Last Airbender. At this point, the moviegoing public began to wonder if Shyamalan had ever been good in the first place (everybody: “What a twist!”).
Then, about a year and a half ago, something funny happened: I stumbled across The Sixth Sense on TV – for the first time since seeing it on its initial VHS release – and was surprised to realize how well it held up. We weren’t all just dazzled by the twists and turns; it was actually really good. Upon this realization, my girlfriend made the case to me that Signs was underrated in its own right. We watched it, and sure enough, she was right: it’s severely weird and bizarrely stilted, but in a way that could only come from some sort of crackpot genius. Then, in a strange twist (!), the rest of the world seemed to follow suit: the gleefully weird found-footage thriller The Visit was a surprise critical and commercial hit, and Wayward Pines, Shyamalan’s first foray into television, was met with widespread praise and a speedy second-season pickup. With very little warning, we were suddenly living in a world where it was once again okay to like M. Night Shyamalan.
Which brings us to M. Night’s newest, Split. As I write this, Split holds a 76% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and, at a three-day gross in excess of $40 million – double its expectations, four times its budget – is the #1 movie in America. These statistics would be strange even if it weren’t for its pedigree; Split is deeply weird, cheerfully perverse, and way, way over the top. It’s also a hell of a lot of fun.
Describing the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan film is, by definition, an exercise in vaguery and allusion, but the main point is this: a trio of teenage girls (including Anya Taylor-Joy, previously of last year’s fantastic The Witch) are abducted by a man named Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) – sort of. Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder, and plays host to 23 (or 24) different personalities. We almost never meet the “real” Kevin Wendell Crumb, but rather spend time with four of his more dominant personae: violent, obsessive-compulsive Dennis; gabby aspiring fashion designer Barry; Patricia, who would probably be played by Tilda Swinton were she in command of her own body; and nine-year-old Kanye fan Hedwig. These personalities, it seems, constitute a sort of one-man cult (referred to by both its members and crusading psychologist Betty Buckley as “The Horde”), and have made plans far stranger than their captives could possibly imagine.
Let’s get this out of the way right now: Split is fucking nuts. Much of that is thanks to an extraordinary, all-out performance by McAvoy, who takes each of the character sketches above (and then some) and plays them to the absolute hilt – imagine Nicolas Cage starring in a big-screen adaptation of Orphan Black, and you’ve got a basic idea of how crazy things get. McAvoy plays each character distinctly and convincingly – including inter-personality conversations, and occasional instances of personalities impersonating other personalities – and commits fully enough that the conceit never collapses. When young Hedwig gives “the light” to stern Patricia, for example, McAvoy doesn’t have to utter a word for the audience to understand what’s happened. So dazzling is McAvoy’s performance that one might overlook Taylor-Joy’s work, which is nearly as impressive. Like the protagonist of Adam Wingard’s brilliant You’re Next, Taylor-Joy’s Casey proves to be uniquely suited to her situation. Whenever she’s on camera, one can see Casey’s mind working, analyzing her situation for a potential escape route. Though most of her work thus far has fallen squarely in genre territory, I would not be surprised to see Taylor-Joy up for an Oscar within the decade.
Then there’s the movie itself. Some will no doubt take offense to Split’s take on mental illness: in addition to the implication that DID sufferers may be supernatural beings (though Buckley’s psychiatrist takes great pains to point out that Kevin’s case is extraordinary), there are several somewhat uncomfortable points raised about abuse, and while Hedwig is identified early on as a nine-year-old boy, McAvoy endows him with what could uncharitably be called “Retard Voice.” These are not unfair criticisms, but to me they miss what the movie is. For starters, Split announces itself fairly early on as exaggerated pulp; it never quite winks at the audience, but is well aware of how crazy it is and leans into the curve at every opportunity (a good point of comparison might be the strikingly nasty 2009 Vera Farmiga vehicle Orphan, an indefensible film which I will nonetheless defend to the death). Even before the final twist (which, unlike many Shyamalan endings, doesn’t much alter the plot, but does suggest it may fall into a couple of previously unsuspected genres), one must accept that we’re in a world more cartoonish than most.
Moreover, like the vast majority of Shyamalan’s films, Split operates in a sort of not-quite-reality, in which characters speak in stilted monologues, everyday tasks are drawn out to absurd lengths, and utterly ludicrous developments are greeted with something between open-minded acceptance and bored nonchalance. Detractors have long cited these as weaknesses on Shyamalan’s part as a writer and director, but I disagree; Shyamalan’s scripts are clearly written very deliberately, and the tone is consistent enough between his films that it can’t be unintentional. Love him or hate him, unlike many of his now-stablemates at Blumhouse, Shyamalan is some sort of honest-to-god auteur, with a recognizable vision– cracked though it may be.
Which leads me to wonder: how differently would we perceive M. Night Shyamalan if his career hadn’t effectively begun with The Sixth Sense? The Sixth Sense is great, obviously, but it’s also a tough act to follow. It set him up as a new Hitchcock, but no filmmaker should have to be saddled with that sort of expectation. Instead, we should view him as a contemporary William Castle: a prolific purveyor of unapologetically gimmicky thrillers, which nonetheless convey an enthusiasm and personal vision rare in pulp entertainment. The accepted narrative is that M. Night Shyamalan just recently got his groove back; instead, I would argue that the world at large only just figured out what his groove was in the first place.
What a— aw, you know the rest.
dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Now playing @ Somerville Theatre and elsewhere