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Opinions aren’t split on Shyamalan’s comeback

by

Special To The Japan Times

I’ve always had a soft spot for M. Night Shyamalan, even despite the fact that he has made a total of two truly successful films — “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Unbreakable” (2000) — over the course of his over-20-year career. The rest of his work has ranged from mildly disappointing to somewhat enraging — “The Last Airbender,” anyone?

The 46-year-old director continues to polish his craft, stating at a talk session in Tokyo recently, “I love what I do.” Confident, bright-eyed and exuberant, Shyamalan comes off as a boy who just refuses to give up — especially on himself.

Split
Rating
Run Time 117 mins
Language ENGLISH

This time, his confidence is justified. “Split” isn’t a complete return to form, but it reminded me of what a Shyamalan film used to promise: heart-racing unpredictability and a story that winds into a towering structure of queasy horror. “Split” does suffer from moments of credibility meltdown, most notably in the way the story blithely ignores stuff like GPS systems, surveillance cameras and SNS — all of which would upset the entire premise of the story. Aside from that, Shyalaman is in total control of the material.

And his conviction certainly fuels the performance of lead actor James McAvoy as Kevin, a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder (DID) and 23 different personas. He moves between the different identities deftly. In one scene, he’s Dennis, the head honcho of the DID team, and in another he’s 9-year-old Hedwig, who’s afraid of Dennis but will sometimes stage small acts of rebellion. He can also become Patricia, the calming influence who wears a classy skirt and heels.

It’s clear though, that Dennis wants all of Kevin’s time to himself. Five minutes into the story he has staged a dramatic kidnapping of three teenage girls who have just come out of a birthday party, and locked them in a basement. He apparently likes to watch young girls dance naked, but he never has a chance to indulge this desire and the story is quite reticent about what exactly Dennis’ true motive is. In the meantime, the girls are panicked, with the exception of Casey (Anya Taylor Joy), who is the least privileged and the most level-headed of the trio. While the other two girls (Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula) rant and weep, Casey urges them to stay calm, saying, “We don’t even know what this is yet,” and doesn’t act until she’s sure there’s a chance of outwitting their abductor.

Casey is compelling to watch and so is Kevin’s long-time psychologist Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley). She has no inkling of what Dennis is up to, since he’s careful not to show up for their sessions. It’s Barry who does the talking there, a sensitive artist type who brings in drawings of clothing designs and talks as though he has just come back from Paris Fashion Week. The doctor isn’t fooled completely, though, she conveys an uneasiness every time they meet. When she finally ventures to take their sessions outside her office, it’s too little, too late.

“Split” reminded me of well-crafted horror stories dense with dialogue (not since “The Usual Suspects” will you see a perpetrator so verbose) and crammed with real action instead of mind-numbing gore. Let your attention wander for even a minute and you’re likely to miss entire chunks of the narrative.

It may be a bit premature to celebrate the return of the prodigal son of cinematic twists, but a small toast is definitely in order.