In a sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation as a director is an enigma. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker whose standing in the public eye can be met with equal shares of positivity and negativity, and yet, the word ‘polarizing’ doesn’t feel like an accurate descriptor even though it may fit the bill. For what it’s worth, whether you like his movies or not, you have to admit that he is a fascinating director – not to mention, he’s been slowly working himself away from the stench left by most of his films from the last decade.
The Visit was a financial hit and Shyamalan’s best-reviewed film since 2002’s Signs, but it lacked the resonant impact his earlier films possessed, likely because of its well-worn found footage format and his audience’s awareness to the formula of twist endings he’s established for himself. When the trailer for Split premiered, though, it promised to be something wholly intriguing conceptually, especially with James McAvoy at the lead. But while it is miles better than most of his output in the last ten years, and may undeniably leave an impression on its viewers, Shyamalan’s Split frustratingly finds the director often getting in his own way.
Such a revelation is particularly infuriating because like many of cinema’s best auteurs, Shyamalan’s filmmaking style is defined by meticulousness and a high level of visual, aural and storytelling control. Every passing scene is meant to heighten the tension to an unbearable degree until there’s no other option but the blow the doors off with a big reveal, so creating a consistent atmosphere is vital for his films’ success. Appropriately, the movie wastes no time in transporting us to where we need to be in the story, as one of Kevin’s (McAvoy) 23 personalities quickly abducts our other three protagonists in the opening scene.
Once we hit the title card, we ready ourselves for what we hope is a roller coaster of suspense, partially because we never know which of Kevin’s personalities will illuminate themselves at any given moment. McAvoy is a very reputable actor, and the idea of him playing multiple personalities inside of one character was exciting. Thankfully, he gives the towering performance the material expects and demands of him, often stealing the show entirely. But the beauty of his performance isn’t necessarily in how he seamlessly changes his accent, tone of voice and facial expressions, but rather the subtlety of his movements. The way he is staged and moves within the frame speaks to unnerving self-containment, gradually building the pressure until his climactic moment.
Unfortunately, while Shyamalan is able to draw consistency out of his lead actor, he often takes missteps in his visual presentation and scriptwriting. Shyamalan has a keen eye for framing, blocking and evidently color palette, and he uses all three to decent effect. His autumnal hues suitably shift from comforting warmth to harsh saturation depending on the context, and it makes the other sparingly used colors pop on screen and call to our attention. His frequent use of close-ups on characters ramp up the atmosphere throughout the narrative’s progression, but their overuse eventually betrays him as he tries to make his climactic moments the most impactful.
His storytelling and writing, in general, bears much of the same issues. The film sits just under the two-hour mark, and his story unfolds very methodically. It isn’t surprising given the careful control he supplies every facet of the film, and while the problem isn’t necessarily the gradual pace, it’s the repetitiveness of the narrative’s present day portion that might leave some viewers restless. Additionally, there are moments of dialogue that completely conflict with the tone of a scene. You can tell that he’s trying to ground it in reality and make it authentic to the character, but sometimes it comes across as comical and kills the momentum, which doesn’t help when West Dylan Thordson’s original score is too hit or miss to contribute to a consistent atmosphere.
There’s quite a bit that goes right for Shyamalan in Split, and roughly an equal amount that needed fine-tuning. It does just enough to save itself from mediocrity, but with such a fascinating premise, it should have amounted to much more, and Shyamalan’s talents as a filmmaker should have been enough to reach those heights. For now, as he saves his reputation from the groans and chuckles encouraged by seeing his name attached to anything, ‘just enough’ is exactly that. But if it doesn’t get much better from here, then I don’t know where I’ll find the patience.
And yeah, that ‘twist’ was confusing, but I guess we’ll see if it amounts to anything.