Fantastic Fest Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Split’ Starring James McAvoy

Since Fantastic Fest’s 2005 inception, the week-long genre film festival has played host in premiering the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth, Zombieland and even Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Premieres are noteworthy as the audience reception can help launch the career of a promising new filmmaker. Premieres can also reintroduce a talent that at once had skyrocketing success.

This year has had no shortage of amazing new filmmakers – Julia Ducournau (Raw), Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother). So when the night approached for the festival’s secret screening – this year, like Highlander, there was only one – rumors started wafting through the B&B (Beards and Blackshirts) milling around outside. Could the event organizers pull the rugs out from everyone and show the presidential debate instead? Only if audience members got their own tube of glue to sniff. Doctor Strange, perhaps? How about Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire starring recent Oscar winner Brie Larson? No on all three accounts.

Keeping the secret film a secret can prove quite difficult in an environment where beer is always on tap. When alcohol flows, tight lips begin to loosen up and once one person tells someone else the title spreads like a game of Password. Considering this year’s Fantastic Fest had an Indian theme and members of Blumhouse Productions were in attendance for the 2016 edition of the Fantastic Market (which includes pitch sessions and work-in-progress screenings), it should have been easy to unravel the secret.

The secret screening went to a film that finished editing the week leading up to the start of the fest, written and directed by a man once considered a wunderkind, and likely to inspire future filmmakers. The film was Split from M. Night Shyamalan.

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Now, before you start rolling your eyes, which some are bound to do whenever M. Night’s name is uttered – jeez, you’d think he was Voldemort, etcetera – I’ll freely admit I fell off his bandwagon a long time ago. And it wasn’t on account of him killing off a film critic in The Lady in the Water, which was probably catharsis for Shyamalan after reactionary responses to his cinematic oeuvre since his breakthrough The Sixth Sense.

After a string of flops, including The Last Airbender and After Earth, M. Night was given a fresh start thanks to Jason Blum, who is arguably the reigning king of low-budget horror at the moment with his company producing a string of hits that has included the Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and The Purge franchises.

Their collaboration on 2015’s The Visit freed Shyamalan of studio constraints and blockbuster backfires, allowing him to stretch his film-making capabilities on a smaller scale (the horror pic had an estimated $5 million budget). The experiment paid off and ushered in M. Night’s second act as a filmmaker.

If The Visit was the director still warming up in the bullpen, then his latest thriller, Split, finds him taking the mound. The subject involves Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.), previously referred to as multiple personality disorder. From Norman Bates in Psycho to the Narrator in Fight Club, to Brian De Palma’s multiple depictions in cinema, the disorder has been used as a plot twist, a plot device, or as an actor’s showcase (see Joanne Woodward in The Three Faces of Eve).

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From the get-go the thriller places its faith in star James McAvoy, an actor who rarely has had the opportunity to show his range. He plays Kevin and has nearly two dozen other personas, including a 9-year-old named Hedwig. Some are sweet and understanding. But then there’s the one with OCD that plucks three teenagers from a mall parking lot and holds them in an underground bunker. What follows is a tale where the most introverted teen, Casey (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy), uses her own traumatic past in an attempt to outsmart Kevin and escape.

James McAvoy is very convincing as a man with D.I.D., able to amuse and horrify. His alters allow him to give a transformative performance as his mannerisms shift when a new persona takes over. Moving between alters as if he were going through a turnstile, McAvoy’s range makes it easy to forgive the simple captive-captor narrative.

It’s not Shyamalan’s fault; there’s only so many ways to do prisoner escape plot and try to be original. Where he does succeed is his uses of long takes. As he revealed during a Q&A after the secret screening concluded, he has footage of McAvoy doing an eight-minute monologue, the actor’s theater background an asset in allowing him to draw our attention with little in the way of subterfuge.

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To give the viewers some breathing room, the story leaves the underground and goes topside with Kevin meeting with his therapist, Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley – a nice casting touch for those familiar with De Palma’s Carrie), as she works to solve the broken puzzle that is his brain. These scenes are subtle in illustrating Barry’s OCD affliction as he organizes items around her office insuring they are level and uniformed. What doesn’t work is tying Casey’s traumatic past into the narrative through flashbacks. The payoff doesn’t pay in full leaving the audience on a lurch.

Now it wouldn’t be a Shyamalan film without a twist, right? But what worked once in The Sixth Sense has seen his subsequent films suffer with their inclusions and reveals. The good news is that while Kevin’s condition is twist-worthy in itself, its revelation is made before the first act concludes. So we watch, seemingly lost in McAvoy’s performance, believing Split to be a straight-forward story with Casey and the other girls trying to escape. Ah, but that would be too easy. Makes me wonder what would have happened if the mall where the abduction took place had better security guards.

Score: 7/10

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy

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