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Split - Is M. Night Shyamalan back from movie exile?

If your movie recollection extends back to 1999 and thereafter, you might recall that M. Night Shyamalan was the darling of the moment, an “auteur” in the tradition of Fellini and Bergman, only with scary movies. Shyamalan wrote, produced and directed his movies and set them close to home in southern Pennsylvania and gave them a distinctly local look that seems downright familiar to people who know the area, with sets in Philadelphia and nearby places like college destination Doylestown. His first few widely released films, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs shared a common somber mood, insidious rising tension and, one of M Night’s trademarks, a twisty ending, not unlike some of the old films of Alfred Hitchcock. After this good start, however, Shyamalan seemed to go off the tracks, releasing increasingly cringe-worth movies like The Last Airbender that went nowhere and ended up with embarrassing ratings.

If you liked his early films, you’ve probably been hoping that Shyamalan would get back on the tracks, do some decent movies and maybe even go back to southern PA. Some of that happens in Split. The plot line of Split is about a character of many names, played by James McAvoy. The character is that strangest and most controversial of psychological types, a “multiple personality”. McAvoy portrays a wide variety of strange characters, including Dennis, Patricia, Kevin, Barry and others, as well as a much darker personality, The Beast. We meet Kevin in therapy with a psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who is fascinated with multiple personality disorder, perhaps to the extent that she romanticizes them, and attributes them with special powers, such as the ability of one character to not experience physical illnesses that afflict the others or even special strength and abilities.

Meantime…three suburban teen age girls have been abducted from a parent’s car and are missing. The movie audience, of course, realizes that one of Kevin’s personalities has kidnapped them, and has them locked up in some sort of scary basement. While the kidnapper doesn’t seem to be directly threatening them, one of the other personalities definitely is. Suspense builds over what is going to happen to the girls. Frantic searches ensue. Meanwhile, the girls try whatever they can to escape. One of the girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems especially wary and resourceful, at least in part due to some seriously creepy parts of her childhood experience, which are related in flashbacks. At the same time, “Kevin” (or whoever he is at that moment) is still attending therapy, while his therapist is finding herself increasingly over her head in trying to keep track of all of his personality shifts. What all this leads to is a twisty, Shyamalan-patented ending. I’m not giving any hints since the twists and the end are why you are seeing this movie.

I thought that Split was partially successful. Knowing Shyamalan’s penchant for Hitchcocky endings, I knew that I needed to watch for foreshadowing, seemingly trivial elements and plot turns that would lead up to some sort of surprise or unexpected plot development. Nevertheless, there was at least a middling surprise in how things ended up. The twist wasn’t the one I expected. The movie is well crafted, as have been all of Shyamalan’s films. I thought that the middle of the movie, the part about the girls in captivity, lasted too long. It made the entire film last longer than the plot material could support. We didn’t really need that many scenes of the girls and their unsuccessful escape attempts. Nevertheless, the mood and plot twists worked pretty well.

Acting was quite good, with special plaudits to James McAvoy. He did a great job of creating a large number of characters, each with his own unique speech mannerisms and body language. The three kidnap victims were the usual horror movie victims, mainly attractive young women who look good in their undies and can scream a lot. The character of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) gets more on screen time than the other two and is quite good at running and screaming. Other characters are serviceable horror movie characters, nothing noteworthy but decent enough.

It’s worth noting that there is a cameo. At the end, Bruce Willis appears for a few seconds, giving hints that his character from early Shyamalan movie, Unbreakable, might be playing into some sort of sequel that combines that character with the outcome of Split. Who knows..there’s nothing about it on IMDB yet, but it’s a hard connection to miss.

Overall, I liked the film…didn’t love it, but it was certainly better than some of Shyamalan’s other recent fare. My biggest complaint was that the middle part of the movie, the girls’ captivity, seemed overlong to me. The cheap thrill of teen girls screaming in their undies was mainly a distraction and not much of a titillation. The film would have benefitted with more cuts to the running and screaming parts in the middle and a better pace leading to the enigmatic ending. Early on in the 2000’s, I had high expectations for Shyamalan’s auteur status. Split hasn’t exactly restored that, but it’s OK. It’s enjoyable (at least if you like this genre), doesn’t do anything awful and does some things I originally liked about Shyamalan. He’s back where he seems to belong, in southern PA, using local settings and culture, working them into the backdrop of the film. I’d like to see some sort of “part three” that brings Willis’s Unbreakable character into a final chapter that has Split as part two. Split is good enough to enjoy on its own, however, and hopefully may be the beginning of a return to grace by Shyamalan.