Split continues M. Night Shyamalan’s Resurgence
The career trajectory of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is unlike almost anything seen before in Hollywood. From the ultra-success of The Sixth Sense, to lesser hits Unbreakable and Signs; then onto unachieved expectations with The Village and The Lady in the Water, to the lowest of lows with The Happening and 2010’s The Last Airbender. And then it somehow got even worse with 2013’s After Earth. M. Night Shyamalan had cut himself a tough career outlook with 1999’s The Sixth Sense; and in doing so, created unsustainable expectations. For as groundbreaking as The Sixth Sense was, it relies so heavily on a gimmicky plot device that the obvious question became – how many of these gimmicks could Shyamalan think up before audiences have had enough? Or worse yet, would Shyamalan run of of ideas? By the mid-aughts, Shyamalan’s filmography had become a running joke in the movie business.
It’s time that audiences disregard the expectations they had after The Sixth Sense. He will never achieve those highs again, but that doesn’t mean he can’t continue churning out entertaining movies. 2015’s low budget The Visit (budget of $5 Million with a $98.5 Million box office) showed he may still have something left in the tank. 2017’s Split continues that streak – a $9 Million budget with revenues of $276+ Million.
With Split, Shyamalan has shown his unique perspective and writing take on a well-worn concept – the ‘crazy man with multiple personalities where one might not be like the others’. We’ve seen this story many times before; in horror (2003’s Identity), comedy (2000’s Me, Myself, & Irene), and suspense (1996’s Primal Fear). Split isn’t breaking any new ground but Shyamalan does find a refreshing way to merge together horror with a super villain origin story.
As much as Split shows Shyamalan is still a writer with something left to write, it also shows his career would be best served with the title ‘writer’ and not ‘writer/director’. There is nothing significant about his direction. He still relies too heavily on off-kilter framing choices. His films all have the same tone to them. He only has a couple tools in his toolbox and when he’s been using the same ones for nearly 20 years, it feels tired.
Shyamalan has written a story that relies entirely on its on-screen talent. Split lives and dies on the back of lead actor James McAvoy, as he inhabits a seemingly infinite number of roles as the tortured Kevin Wendell Crumb; afflicted by 23 competing personalities. McAvoy fully commits to the role(s), with some hitting their mark, while others don’t make the impact needed. He alternately drives both the foreboding suspense with the perverse ‘Dennis’ and ominous ‘Patricia’, and the film’s relief with the juvenile ‘Hedwig’. These facets of McAvoy’s Kevin are all just lead ups to revealing the nearly mythic 24th personality – ‘The Beast’. Unlike some Shyamalan duds (The Happening), Split delivers with a worthy conclusion to Kevin’s tortured story.
Shyamalan’s Split isn’t a great film; and if audiences continue to use 1999’s The Sixth Sense as his career measuring stick, he will forever be a disappointment and underachiever. But on its own, Split is a scary fun two hours to waste. Nevertheless, financiers would be smart to still be economical when handing Mr. Shyamalan a check.
- Screenwriting: 8/10 – Dark suspense builds to a satisfying conclusion
- Direction: 5/10 – Shyamalan should leave the directing to directors
- Acting: 7/10 – McAvoy gives his all; and (mostly) lives up to the challenge
7/10, M. Night Shyamalan is well on his way to resurrecting his career. He would be smart to continue with these acutely focused suspense thrillers that highlight his writing.