I left M. Night Shyamalan’s last trashy horror experiment, The Visit, with mixed, but cautiously positive feelings on the director’s redemptive comeback potential. That film’s follow-up, Split, laughs in the face of my caution by revealing a filmmaker who excels as a stylist & a tension-builder on a near-masterful level, a newly confident auteur who’s just starting to get a full grasp on what he can accomplish within his own artistic boundaries two decades into his career. He just happens to be a near-masterful stylist that makes undeniably stupid movies. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t really deserve it (think Richard Kelly’s The Box as a reference point). When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.
James McAvoy stars as a mentally unstable blue collar worker suffering with the scientifically controversial Dissociative Identity Disorder. While his well-meaning therapist quietly studies him from a distance and tries to build a high-profile career around his exceptional example, the troubled man’s more unsavory personalities begin to dominate his daily actions, keeping his less harmful multiples in the dark. This is not the empathetic, humanist portrait of D.I.D. delivered in United States of Tara, but it’s just as silly & wildly inaccurate. Much like with The Visit, there’s an indelicate genre film cheesiness to the way this movie handles mental health issues that doesn’t exactly deflect criticism, but pushes its depiction so far outside the context of reality that you’d have to reach pretty damn far to be personally offended. McAvoy’s unhinged villain is a scary white man with a debilitating mental disorder who sets in motion a confined space/women-in-captivity thriller plot when one of his most violent alters kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a basement for a vague, menacing purpose. The film slowly evolves into a very strange beast in that basement, both asking you to sympathize with the troubled man (an abuse survivor) and to fear the impending revelation of his 24th alternate personality, described as an all-powerful, inhuman monster that will test “the limits of what man can become.” He threatens his captives with ominous declarations like “You are sacred food,” and “The time of ordinary humanity is over,” but nothing could possibly prepare them for the brilliantly stupid weirdness that goes down in the film’s third act.
Of course, the most readily recognizable calling card for M. Night Shyamalan as an auteur is the last minute twist and I’ll do my best to avoid Split‘s ultimate destination out of respect for that trashiest of traditions. I will say, though, that Split‘s best quality is that its Big Twist Ending does not at all cheapen or undercut the plot the film lays out before its arrival. In fact, it at first appears there may be no twist at all. Everything Split introduces as a central theme and a narrative thread, from the therapist’s assertion that D.I.D. might be able to unlock “the full potential of the human brain” & “all things supernatural” to the way privilege can soften competence to the life-long effects of childhood familial abuse to one of the imprisoned teens (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) utilizing survivalist skills her father taught her while deer hunting in a Final Girl context, is fully explored in a linear A-B story with very few sharp turns or gimmicks to distract from their impact. Then, when each storyline is fully satisfied & neatly concluded, the Twist Ending arrives to recontextualize everything you’ve seen until that point in a way that expands the film’s scope & somewhat explains its oddly goofy tone instead of shifting its reality entirely. It’s still stupid, but it’s brilliantly stupid.
As genuinely creepy as Split can be in any given scene, especially once it finds itself in the threatened sexual assault territory of generic teens-in-their-underwear horror, it’s also a sublimely silly affair. McAvoy at one point has way too much fun making a show out of his solo bedroom dancing after a character desperately pleads, “I want to hear your Kanye West albums.” He also delivers what is sure to be a strong ironic contender for an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for him to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game. I don’t think I’ve ever left one of his films this deliriously giddy before and it’s an exciting feeling. I now need to see whatever expertly dumb thing he pulls off next.