M. Night Shyamalan has had a strange career. The director kicked down the door with 1999’s The Sixth Sense, then had a couple of fantastic follow-up films before falling hard and fast into self-indulgence and eventually making a few of what are considered the worst films of the past decade.
But then, all of a sudden, with 2015’s wonderfully creepy The Visit, and now his newest thriller, Split, it appears that Shyamalan is back. And what’s more, for the first time it seems like he’s actually having fun making movies.
With Split we meet James McAvoy, a man whose personality is fractured into 23 separate characters, one of whom kidnaps three teenage girls for exceedingly sinister reasons that become clear as the film goes on, with the three girls trapped in McAvoy’s basement. Actually, I should say three of McAvoy’s personalities kidnap the girls, as those three aspects of McAvoy have banded together to take control over the other 20 personalities present in his body. Confused yet?
It’s not really that hard to follow, once you’re in it. McAvoy does an exceptional job at shifting from personality to personality and keeping clear to us who is doing what and when, and Shyamalan’s direction keeps us in exactly the right amount of suspense as we wonder what in the world is happening to these girls. And where it’s all leading, I won’t tell you, but I will say there’s the potential of a 24th personality emerging in McAvoy, and it’s a particularly nasty piece of work.
All the while, there’s a slight undercurrent of cheekiness and humor to the whole thing, which is what makes me happy to find Shyamalan actually enjoying himself. Even his extremely confident first few films were slow and plodding—a bit too much for some people, though not for me—and it seemed that while he knew exactly what he was doing, it wasn’t necessarily all that much fun for him. But whatever’s changed for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m all for it. Split is a heckuva good time, and for those fans of his early work, pay close attention to the last few seconds—he’s put something delightful there just for you.