2 Feb 2017

Split is goofy, glib and glorious

2:12 pm on 2 February 2017

M Night Shyamalan is back, baby.


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Photo: Supplied

It can be easy to forget that, for a brief but wonderful moment, M. Night Shyamalan was a critical and commercial darling. His films - most notably The Sixth Sense, Signs and Unbreakable were must-sees, and must-see-quicklys at that, lest the signature twist be spoiled before you made it to the cinema.

The movies were silly in theory but chilling in practice and with knack for style and suspense, Shyamalan was a sensation.

Where did he go wrong? Was it with The Village with its fun but all too obvious twist? Was it Lady in the Water with its oh-so-serious self-indulgence? Or was it The Happening, a movie literally about Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg running away from the wind?

Who’s to say? In any case the once loved director became something of a laughing stock which, unfortunately, offerings such as The Last Airbender and After Earth did little to assuage.

Well, Shyamalan is back, baby, and with new thriller Split finds himself once again at the top of box office and deep in the gooey depths of movie-goers' hearts.

The latest in a recent spate of abducted-girl-trapped-in-dungeon movies - 10 Cloverfield Lane, Pet, Don’t Breathe - Split takes the concept from 0 to 100, and in doing so is arguably one of the most original mainstream horror movies in years.

Split begins with the kidnapping of three teen girls, who awake to find themselves trapped a cellar and held captive by a skeezy James Mcavoy.

The girls quickly discover, however, that their captor is not just this one weirdo, but rather 23 weirdos all contained in the body of Kevin, a man with a particularly acute case of dissociative identity disorder. Unfortunately in Kevin’s case, a couple of his more nefarious personalities have taken over and by kidnapping the girls, seem be to be preparing for the birth of his worst identity yet.

As you may have gathered from the copious amount of promotional material surrounding the film, this is where things get wacky. Kevin's psychiatrist, played by a motherly Betty Buckley, believes that Kevin, along with other patients with trauma-related DID, are able to unlock parts of the human brain - and body - that others can’t, making DID sort of a kind of superpower.

From here the film flips back and forth between the girls’ attempts at escape and Buckley’s growing suspicion towards Kevin, as whatever unknown dread he awaits draws closer.

It is silly, suspenseful and totally captivating. It is also super glib.

Both the premise of Split - beautiful young girls kept in a makeshift dungeon, a man with a mental illness that threatens to make him quite literally a monster - and various revelations made throughout about the nature of trauma, are very, very dark. Were one to find it wholly objectionable they could not really be faulted.

In spite of this - or, if you’re feeling perverse, possibly because of it - Split is a pleasure to watch. The subject matter may be grim, but tonally, aesthetically, and in each of the fabulously campy performances there is an energy and enthusiasm rarely found in the blockbusters of the Marvel era.

McAvoy, in particular, is incredible. He is in turns perfect at being a perverted germaphobe, a psychotic matriarch, a self-involved 9-year-old and the various other members of “the horde” that live within Kevin’s mind.  

Split represents both a liberation and a return to form for Shyamalan whose decade of catastrophes suggested something of a crisis of confidence. Like his 2015 film The Visit before it, also a preposterous thriller that felt free to be as joyously stupid as it wanted, Split feels as though Shyamalan finally stopped worrying about the haters and learned to embrace the ridiculous ideas that no one else would dare pursue.

That the now very successful Split mirrors - and in some case adopts - the hallmarks of the kinds of exploitation films usually maligned by audiences, is curious and in some ways a little bit troubling. However, to my eye, this is not nearly as sinister as the attempts to romanticise similar plot points in a film like Passengers.

Shyamalan’s strength is his joyful absurdity, something Split has in droves. It even has a teeny weeny twist right at the very end, though this acts more to reframe the movie than it does to turn it on its head.

Split will not be for everyone. For those who, like me, were not offended by its treatment of certain issues, it is important to remember that this is more a symptom of personal privilege than an objective judgment of the film itself. Nevertheless, for those who have long waited for his triumphant return, Split is a show-stopping comeback for Shyamalan. In an era of cinema so firmly stuck in the safe-zone, it is hard not to feel relieved.