M. Night Shyamalan’s last film The Visit - an imperfect albeit superbly entertaining The Evil Dead-esque comedy-horror, seemed like a harbinger of good things to come. It marked a drastic departure for the director, but most vitally, it seemed like he had finally, finally learned not to take his often hackneyed storytelling so seriously. It perhaps wasn’t as satisfying as a return to his emotionally precise, elegantly crafted tales of the early aughts, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.
So, with the director back on the upswing, it seems as though we have all had our collective breath held to see if it was a fluke. And, I am happy to report that, despite Split’s problems, it walks the tightrope between horror and comedy as brilliantly – if not better – than The Visit. But, I must begin with the three stars of the show: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis.
First, for the least known of the three. If you have seen Gioulakis’s work in It Follows, you know what an absolute treasure this man is. His penchant for crafting gorgeous, suspenseful camerawork in tight spaces was on full display in the 360 degree shot at the school in 2015’s surprise-hit horror. In Shyamalan’s latest, Gioulakis has to get far more creative. Confined to a room and a hallway, he constantly finds ways to integrate the themes of the film into the camerawork itself subtly, but beautifully and he uses shallow focus to great effect.
Next, the budding star Anya Taylor-Joy, who absolutely wowed me with her work in The Witch last year, does a phenomenal job yet again. She’s strong, resourceful, but vulnerable where appropriate. But, her backstory – intercut with current events – leaves a bit to be desired. On the one hand, it appropriately communicates why she’s so resourceful, though I’m not entirely sure we absolutely needed the backstory to understand that character trait. On the other hand, Shyamalan will often flash back to moments that are far too ephemeral to really communicate any character building. In these cases, they feel jarring and like momentum-killers. They also introduce a problematic trope with female character building that writers rely on far too often. It’s frustrating and totally unnecessary.
Third, there is McAvoy, whose work here is practically the selling point of the film. It’s quite remarkable how effortlessly and brilliantly he’s able to transition between each of his personalities. Even with what minimal costume switch up McAvoy does in between personalities, he is able to distinguish each personality with such precision, down to smiles and shifting glances, that I only wish he could be nominated for an award. It is also incredible how brilliantly McAvoy is able to shoulder the switch between comedy and horror. One moment he’s coldly terrifying, chewing up the screen with his icy gaze. The next, he’s brightening up the room with an absurd rendition of a toddler taunting his captors through a heavy lisp.
And lastly, as with any Shyamalan movie, there is the twist. This is totally spoiler free. But, suffice it to say, the ending is new ground for Shyamalan. And, the more I think about the twist and its possible layers of commentary, the more I like it. That having been said, it is certainly jarring.
Split isn’t perfect, but it is fun and it continues Shyamalan’s mostly stellar fit within the confines of the horror-comedy subgenre. If you are able to forgive some problematic writing, there is a lot to love here. And, honestly, it’s worth it just to see James McAvoy babble on about a beast as a toddler.