In the past I have not been a fan of writer / director M. Night Shyamalan's work. This is for a simple reason: I think he is bad at writing and directing.
I have many problems with his writing: his dialogue often sounds stiff and unnatural, particularly in exposition heavy scenes; his attempts to weld bigger themes onto straight forward genre premises has repeatedly created films that are neither fish nor fowl; his pacing can be very frustrating - for example, Unbreakable ends out of nowhere with an anticlimactic title card, while The Visit takes way, way too long to get started in earnest.
(Seriously: I kept screaming at the Visit "get to to the damn fireworks factory already!" It is clear from the first five minutes that we are in for a Hansel and Gretel riff - but it takes forty five minutes of palling around with the 'grandparents' before they are revealed to be escaped lunatics in disguise. Making all of that stalling even more upsetting: there are MULTIPLE scenes in the first half where a bland white kid raps badly. Instead of hurrying along to Crazytown like it should that movie keeps stopping so a SHITTY TWEEN CAN SPIT SOME VERSES. Jesus, that movie can go fuck itself so hard.)
(But I digress.)
As a director Shyamalan's biggest problem is that he struggles to manage his tone. The Sixth Sense should have been a tense genre thriller - but instead its first half is a funereal dirge, then late in the second act it becomes an over-the-top ghost story out of nowhere, then just as quickly it reverts back into being a glum slog (albeit one that ends in a (bullshit) happy ending.) Even if you liked both parts of that story - which obviously I don't - you should be able to admit that the scenes where a solemn middle aged ghost resolves his lingering emotional issues don't really match up tonally with the scenes where a spooktacular baby ghost interrupts her own funeral by using an improbably filmed video tape to out her killer to her loved ones.
Because I have been burned by Shyamalan so often in the past I did not go into his newest film Split with high hopes. But I had heard that it was more consistent than some of his other films, plus I like Anya Taylor-Joy (who plays one of the two lead characters) so I decided to give it a chance.
And I'm happy to report that... Shyamalan actually pulled it off this time. For the most part Split is an entertaining thriller.
Let's start with the direction: as I said above, Shyamalan has a problem with not knowing what sort of movie he's making. Here, however, he hits the ground running and (for the most part) keeps up the pace. In the first scene we meet three teenage girls at a birthday party; in the second scene they get kidnapped by a demented man who suffers from split personality disorder; and the bulk of the rest of the movie is a claustrophobic thriller about their attempts to either manipulate one of the more pleasant personalities into helping them escape or to just escape outright.
Any story about a madman who suffers from such a silly form of madness is going to be inherently pulpy... And for once Shyamalan leans into the pulp of his material. The bulk of Split takes place in a dungeon whose design was obviously inspired by Hannibal Lecter's jail cell, and James McAvoy gives a series of scenery chewing performances as Dennis and Hedwig and The Beast (etc.). The combination of such a large presence in such a small space makes the movie feel over-the-top in the best possible way.
However, you'll notice I put some qualifiers in the last paragraph... And that's because Shyamalan is still an imperfect writer with some bad instincts. The tension of any good prison-break movie comes from its claustrophobia - you need to feel like you are trapped in that space and desperately need to get out. Which is why it is such a bummer that Shyamalan regularly takes us out of the torture dungeon and to Kevin's therapist's office.
I get why the pyschiatrist character was introduced - as she gets more and more suspicious about what her patient is really up to she comes cloer and closer to being the deus ex machina who might swoop in and save the three entrapped teens. And if she was just a plot device I would be fine with her; her sessions with Kevin provide some glimpses at his backstory that might be helpful to people who need every last little thing to be explained. (I'm fine with a madman being mad just because that's the way he is; after all, that's the explanation we tend to have to settle for in the real world. But I'm also fine with a villain having a backstory, even if it is a bit trite.)
Unfortunately the pyschiatrist has a side story of her own that has nothing to do with the actual meat of the movie and which significantly distracts from the tension that Split is trying to build. The psychiatrist wants to Kevin's example to prove to her professional cohorts that multiple personality disorder is real, but... who cares? Academic arguments of that sort are not as emotionally compelling as the more straight-forward survival story that is occurring in Kevin's basement. If I have to choose between watching middle age people argue about their abstract hypotheses or watching some nubile teens try to avoid getting eaten by a madman who has christened himself "The Beast", well, I'm going with the nubile teens.
(Also: is it a good idea to even bring up the question of whether or not multiple personality disorder is real? The movie doesn't work at all if we don't believe that Kevin's condition is legit, and suspending our disbelief for that is a big ask. So why even bring up the idea? It adds nothing, but runs the risk of detonating the movie's basic premise by reminding us of just how unrealistic this whole thing is.)
(Also: while I'm bitching about the psychiatrist character - Split seems to see her as a figure to be ridiculed because she is used as the comic relief a few times. (In particular I'm thinking of a superfluous scene where she and an old friend watch an informercial together.) But this is not a movie that needs comic relief; the whole premise is so silly that adding unnecessary comic beats is just gilding the lily. If that character has to be here for structural reasons then it needs to be rewritten in such a way that she can emphasize just how dangerous Kevin is by giving us extra information about what he's capable of, rather than undercutting his air of menace by giving him a wacky buddy to make small talk with.)
(Gah, I really enjoyed this movie, and look at how much time I just spent bitching about one small part of it. Such is Shyamalan's talent for driving me up the wall... Even when he's mostly right those things that are wrong really, really get stuck in my craw.)
Still, a decent but intermittently frustrating movie is a great step forward for Shyamalan, given that he has made some out-and-out stinkers in his time. I'm a little skeptical that he will ever be a great writer, because his dialogue still doesn't quite sound like actual human speech... But Split proves that it might be possible for him to become a good director, one who doesn't waste well-framed visuals and great cinematography on half-assed stories, but rather one who actually crafts watchable movies that tell stories in entertaining ways. And after only eighteen years in the spotlight, no less!