I never trust the “return to form” narrative because it often involves grading on a curve, and we’re asked to appreciate that the latest offering is not quite as ghastly as the preceding ones would lead us to expect. We’re supposed to feel happy about that.
Obviously the subject at hand is M. Night Shyamalan’s SPLIT. I think that rather than illustrating a suddenly reinvigorated mojo, it affirms that MNS’s directorial abilities were always there, and his writing ability was always flawed. I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here but if you haven’t seen the film yet and want to, obviously if you’re concerned about spoilers the sensible thing would be to read no further anyway.
Firstly, the thriller aspect, in which three teenage girls are kidnapped, terrorized, and partly denuded by a person/s, played by James McAvoy seemingly intent on their ritual sacrifice. The set-up and development are efficient and intriguing. Suspense is generated and maintained. The directorial choices are assured, and while plot-twist movies run the risk of seeming mechanistic, over-determined, Shyamalan has always had a gift for encouraging beautiful performances from his cast which humanize the rat-maze construction to a considerable degree, at least until Act III. Special mention is deserved for McAvoy’s gutsy crazy act, Anya Taylor-Joy’s ethereal final girl, and Betty Buckley, the gym teacher from CARRIE, a Shyamalan favourite, who is particularly touching here.
A good last act has to deliver not only solutions to mysteries (or further, scarier mysteries if you’re David Lynch) and conclude the characters’ journeys/struggles, it has to elucidate something called “theme.” I felt dissatisfied by the way SPLIT’s ending did, or tried to do, all of the above, but I would argue that ALL of Shyamalan’s endings have ALWAYS been disastrous. The writer-director has heroically attempted to argue that his endings are no big deal and he doesn’t know why people fuss over them so, but this is surely disingenuous, since those of his films dependant on huge, paradigm-shift reversals are obviously assembled with the greatest of care purely to set up those moments. He might be more interested in character and theme (in the case of SIGNS, at least, an old-fashioned, hokey, strictly-for-Western-Union MESSAGE) but in order to deliver it he relies upon great clunking Rube Goldberg plots.
This one sets up a see-sawing philosophy which, depending on who we’re with, seems to endorse either a beware-the-mutants conservatism which demonizes those with mental illness (or whatever you want to call the controversial D.I.D./M.P.D./split personality condition/plot device) or something between a Nietzschean Übermensch welcome mat and a crackpot argument that only damaged people are truly human and worthwhile. The film never comes down on one side or another, but the uncomfortable fact is, ALL these world-views are offensive, and we don’t get any other choice. Betty Buckley’s character comes close to offering one, but the ending seems to encourage us to view her as one of those “Why don’t we try reasoning with it?” pipe-smokers from ’50s sci-fi horrors.
If we can get past that, and past the third-act character who’s frankly silly, and unoriginal, and disappointing, we can certainly enjoy the sustained tension and understated but effective visuals. Characters do absurd things — some of the protagonists seem to go to sleep like budgies with the cover on the moment Shyamalan cuts elsewhere, only thinking of searching their cells for tools and weapons after hours of imprisonment. But we expect that in thrillers, though it’s never welcome. This movie is no worse than others.
When Professor Buckley makes basic grammatical mistakes while giving a Skype lecture to some prestigious conference, we get the clearest clue to Shyamalan’s true problem — he’s not as smart as he thinks he is. Hence his need to bamboozle us with twists, to assert his superiority, and hence the fact that his twists don’t work. (Fiona, on the way to see THE SIXTH SENSE: “What I’m wondering is, will we see Bruce Willis talk to anyone else?” Me: “Oh, I don’t think they’d try to get away with THAT!” Me, after scene one, sotto voce: “You were right.”) This may also be why SPLIT is so content to titillate in a dubious way, structuring its story as a striptease, with a big plot reveal stored up for when the last garment comes off.
The answer should be simple: get a better writer. But he won’t do it. A shame, because Shyamalan is in fact a terrific director. But in the genre he’s working in, he also needs a solid script.