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January 29, 2017

What are critics saying about M. Night Shyamalan's 'Split?'

Film Horror
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"Split" (2017).

Penn Valley native M. Night Shyamalan's "Split" has been a box office success over its first two weeks in theaters, garnering about $40.2 million in its first week and $26.3 million in its second week, both strong enough to top the competition.

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The director may have picked the most apt title available for his multiple personality thriller, in more ways than one, as his films over the past decade have tended to elicit polarized reactions from audiences keen on picking apart his formula. Even solid casting (Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel in "The Happening," or Will and Jaden Smith in "After Earth") haven't spared him from critical horror shows in their own right. 

In this case, a claustrophobic film about a mentally disturbed kidnapper presents another layer to Shyamalan's unnerving conventions, asking audiences to understand the inner workings of an oft-portrayed but hardly exoteric condition in real life. There's a draw in the simple fact that it's something most people would like to better grasp, even if they know entertainment can't do it justice. 

Just as in previous Shyamalan films, there is an element of the occult to rev up the suspense and horror. While generally well-reviewed — a 74 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an audience score of 82 percent — some felt James McAvoy's core character (one of 23) wasn't rounded enough to help ground his illness and help the audience process his path into kidnapping. From The Verge:

The ideal horror film makes its audience care about a mentally ill character, not just acknowledge their sickness and move right along. Sympathy doesn’t just make for more finely shaded characters — it combats the toxic real-world stigma that’s come from reprehensible depictions of mental illness ... [T]he problem isn’t just that Shyamalan’s approach compounds public distrust for the mentally unwell, it’s the way it ignores the rich potential for more complex storytelling and raw, visceral frights.

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott deems "Split" a "return to form" for Shyamalan, but also sees it as confirmation that the director's real gifts never lent themselves to making him the canonical name in contemporary cinema.

Some years back — it’s startling to contemplate just how long ago it was — Mr. Shyamalan was puffed up into a cinematic visionary, hailed on the cover of Newsweek as “The Next Spielberg.” That hype (and his own self-aggrandizing tendencies) placed a disproportionate burden of significance on a filmmaker who has always been, at heart, a superior genre hack.

Similarly, the A.V. Club praises Shyamalan's low-budget approach since "The Visit" (2015) and applauds him for following the filmmaking instincts behind this less-burdened mission.

This film, made on an identically low budget but with a lot more confidence, feels like another step in a transformation: It waves away the somber atmosphere of his early successes to run hollering down a dark tunnel, chasing familiar motifs further underground.

Writing for Gizmodo, Evan Narcisse warns in advance that "Split" was spoiled for him months ago when a colleague spilled secrets from a screening at Fantastic Fest. This actually made the experience better for him, he said, as the film shares some links with Shyamalan's critically acclaimed "Unbreakable."

Knowing that Split was a supervillain origin story in disguise allowed me to take in how it was advancing Unbreakable’s deconstructed take on metahuman mythology. After seeing Split, I don’t just want to see his next movie. I actually think Shyamalan may have gotten his mojo back. And it’s all thanks to something I wasn’t even supposed to know.

RollingStone, giving the movie three out of four stars, praises Shyamalan for expertly weaving the kidnapping story into the drama of the antagonists mental illness. The plot and cast become more dynamic when one of the girls risks bonding with her captor. Ultimately, McAvoy's acting deserves the lion's share of credit for the film's success, overshadowing the director's failsafe supernatural turns.

"Split" falls in the Shyamalan-plus column, mostly because McAvoy raises the bar on a banal girls-in-peril plot...Shyamalan can't stop himself. But through it all is McAvoy, playing these characters for real, with everything he's got, as if they meant something.

Finally, Variety's Peter Debruge agrees that McAvoy carries the day in "Split," but gives Shyamalan accolades for reconnecting with camera techniques and motifs that made his initial films successful, even after several "atrocious misfires."

To be fair, it’s hard to imagine any writer/director sustaining a career based almost entirely on surprising audiences. And though he lost us for a while there — water-intolerant aliens, anyone? — by trading on ingenuity rather than big-budget special effects, Shyamalan has created a tense, frequently outrageous companion piece to one of his earliest and best movies.

As always, the appeal of "Split" is a bit higher for those in the Delaware Valley, who are by now accustomed to seeing their backyard appear on the big screen in Shyamalan's films. Critics seem to agree that the movie works in more ways than it doesn't, which is a good reason to be optimistic about how the director will build on his regained trust.