Don’t call it a comeback…
Which title best suits M. Night Shyamalan? Genius? Hack? Technician? Egomaniac? Flawed artist? He’s carried all of these labels (and more) over the years. He’s morphed from critical darling to critical punching bag faster than any director in living memory. His earlier successes are contradicted by his staggering failures. His genuine talent seems to be at war with his shoddy track record. There’s a clear divide between “good” Shyamalan and “bad” Shyamalan. You could call it a…split.
Hey, now there’s a transition.
After years in the critical wilderness, Shyamalan returns with “Split,” a movie billed as his major comeback. While it’s filled with good choices and ideas, much like its main character, “Split” is torn between the best and worst intentions of its director. Ultimately, it’s too disjointed and shambolic to completely work.
Three teenage girls go to a birthday party at a low-rent Chuck E. Cheese knockoff, meet a shadowy figure with a bottle of ether, and wake up in an underground basement. They confront their kidnapper (James McAvoy) and plan to escape. Before they can, he turns out to possess another personality, along with 21 others. The girls will have to figure a way out while navigating their captor’s hair-trigger changes.
As boilerplate suspense plots go, “Split” is plenty unique. The location restrictions (we rarely leave the basement) allow Shyamalan to showcase his technical gifts. The camera slinks and slides down shadowy corridors and into dark corners. It’s cold and removed, rendering the viewer a passive, alien observer to the proceedings. The lighting is stark and memorable, at once expressive and realistic. The sound design is also excellent, punctuating long, quiet periods with explosive noises. These choices give the film an off-putting, creepy vibe. On a purely technical level, “Split” is a success. Unfortunately, films aren’t cars; they aren’t solely judged for their technical merits. Films are experiences. And “Split” is a pretty terrible one.
All of these smart choices are undone by Shyamalan’s Achilles’ heel: The dialogue. No one in Hollywood writes worse exchanges than the Twist-Man himself, and “Split” is bursting at the seams with awful sentences. No one in the real world talks like the characters in “Split.” The film also doesn’t establish a fantastical or stylized world where its odd word choices make sense. It just spouts one nonsensical phrase after another while the actors try not to look embarrassed.
McAvoy is the big draw here, as he’s given the actor wet dream of being multiple people at once. He lets his inner ham loose, chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder the girls can’t escape through a wall he devours. He’s a highlight, displaying the high-wire intensity that marks his best roles (“The Last King of Scotland,” “Filth”). Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is nowhere near his league. The kidnapped girls struggle mightily to deliver the terrible dialogue, switching from stiff intonation to lunatic screaming at the drop of a dime. A therapist character involved in a tedious subplot is a particularly bad performer.
These flaws may not seem major compared to its qualities, but “Split” can’t sustain itself for its runtime. It falls into a predictable loop of escape attempts, personality shifts, and ominous threats. It morphs from top-tier schlock to bargain bin schlock to just plain schlock. By the time the third-act bloodbath starts, the audience is too worn out to care.
On its individual merits, “Split” succeeds with sound, lighting, and cinematography. Some may appreciate its odd tonal shifts, McAvoy’s acting, and its, quite frankly, incredible twist ending. But taken as a whole, “Split” is a lot like Shyamalan’s filmography: Interesting at the start, but ultimately unrewarding.