“I see dead people” was the catchphrase from Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear in 1999’s The Sixth Sense. M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural hit grossed close to $300 million at the North American box office during the same summer George Lucas and Jar Jar Binks disappointed Star Wars fans with a Phantom Menace of a prequel.
Shyamalan’s streak continued with Unbreakable in 2000 then 2002’s Signs. But somewhere around The Village (2004), something happened. Lady in the Water (2006) came up dry and The Happening (2008) was anything but. M. Night penned and produced the 2010 hit Devil and 2015’s The Visit fared well enough but was not a true return to his early 2000’s form.
Now, almost 17 years after his Sixth Sense success, M. Night is back on top with Split. As of this review, the film has been at the top of the box office for three consecutive weekends and deservedly so. Shyamalan seems to have gotten his groove back.
The film features James McAvoy in a role that should garner him an Oscar nomination if we lived in a world where the Academy recognizes genre films. McAvoy’s Kevin Crumb is the victim of dissociative identity disorder numbering 23 and the actor slips in and out of each personality as if they were distinctly different roles. Betty Buckley plays his counselor Dr. Karen Fletcher and some of the best performances in the film are the scenes between the two of them in her office. I found myself waiting for him to snap as he’d pace around her office during sessions.
Little does Fletcher know that as they are meeting, Kevin has kidnapped three teenage girls and is holding them in a location unknown to the audience. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula play Claire and Marcia respectively. The standout in the trio is The Witch’s Anna Taylor-Joy as Casey Cooke, the class outsider and sharpest tool in the trio’s shed. We learn through flashbacks that Casey was raised with survivalist instinct by her hunter father. We also meet another “monster” in the form of John (Brad William Henke), Casey’s uncle that molested her as a child and is now her legal guardian.
The film’s standout is Shyamalan himself. As a director, he lets his actors breathe with long continuous takes and composed steady shots. In some cases, he stays on an actor closeup not even showing the other’s reaction. In an era of hand-held quick cuts, this approach is refreshing and at times hypnotic, allowing the viewer to be drawn in. The auteur also elongates fear by showing his actors’ horrified response before we see what they’re responding to.
Solid cinematic suspense is based on withholding visual and narrative information and Shyamalan succeeds. With Split, he’s put himself back at the top of his storytelling game and reopened a fantastical universe based in an authentic reality where I hope he will stay.