How M. Night Shyamalan Got His Groove Back

By: Zach Kirkland

The year was 1999.

A relatively unknown filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan has just released a small picture called The Sixth Sense. It stars Bruce Willis. You think, I’ll give it shot. It’s John McClane so it must be good. Then, you sit down in the theater and you are knocked out. It sneaks up on you. You can’t believe what is happening. I see dead people. It is ingrained in your brain. I remember seeing it at Disney World as a seven-year-old and I was absolutely terrified. My eyes were closed. My heart was racing. I just couldn’t watch. And the ending! It still is one of the most iconic twists pulled off. It’s a cinematic magic trick. M. Night suddenly becomes billed as the next Steven Spielberg. His next three films, Unbreakable, Signs and The Village, are all successes too. He’s still on top of the world Then, the wheels come off. He tries to make some bigger budget films and just falls flat on his face. He now has to find himself again. With his newest film, Split, you can finally say M. Night Shyamalan is back without someone laughing at you.

Split begins with three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) being abducted by Dennis (James McAvoy). He’s cold and emotionless. He insists the girls remain pure for “The Beast”. Through interactions with his psychologist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), we learn that Dennis is one of the many personalities that make up a man named Kevin. Kevin has a form of d Though 23 are mentioned, we only see six. Barry is a gay fashion designer. Patricia is a motherly figure with a sophisticated English accent.  Hedwig is a nine-year-old who has a crush on Casey. There’s Dennis and Kevin. Then, we see The Beast. The Beast is a personality we hear of throughout the film. All of the personalities are fighting with each other in order to gain power over Kevin’s body. The Beast represents the final evolution of man, according to Dennis. The girls fight to escape before it is too late.

While Split is thematically ambitious, it’s scale and design are purely economical. It isn’t a showy film. Most of the showiness comes from McAvoy’s performance. He’s ruthless. He’s maternal. He’s childish. He’s pretentious. While other actors might fully embrace the campier aspects of the role, McAvoy, like M. Night, completely grounds it in real life. The three girls are fine with Taylor-Joy’s Casey being the real standout. Between The Witch and this, she is a name we will be hearing from a lot. We get glimpses of Casey’s backstory through flashbacks where we see why she is more calm and withdrawn compared to the other two. She’s seen worse evil. M. Night manages to make some interesting stylistic choices behind the camera, most notably with his framing choices. He frames his characters in the center and most of the time, they end up speaking directly to us. While the locations are small, he goes with a wide lens and usually keeps entirely in focus, making the locations bigger in relation to the three characters. It only makes them feel more trapped and hopeless. M. Night is a skilled enough technician to exhaust every little bit of his small budget and elevate the B-movie storyline. He’s better at his smallest.

Yes, there’s a twist. No, I won’t spoil it. You’ll be confused. However, once you get it, you’ll realize how ingenious it is. I’ll just leave it at that. Go see it. M. Night is back.

Grade: B