M. Night Shyamalan has never been afraid to take his time. Over the past two decades, the writer-director has demonstrated a fondness for the slow burn, as evidenced by such patiently plotted, expectation-upending blockbusters as The Sixth Sense (1999), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004). But even he was a bit surprised by how long it took for him to crack his latest thriller, Split, about a kidnapper (James McAvoy) who appears to be suffering from dissociative identity disorder. “This originally came as a character I wrote years ago,” Shyamalan says. “I don’t usually sit on ideas for so long.”
Shyamalan’s work on Split goes back to the period in which he was wrestling with the script that would eventually become 2000’s new-millennium superhero saga Unbreakable. He’d come up with early versions of Split’s multiple-personality characters, but couldn’t find a way to work it into the film. It was only recently that he felt ready to return to the idea, having finally settled on the movie’s tone, which turned out to be at once dark, comical, and somewhat asphyxiating.
“It just felt right,” he says. “The containment, this sense of isolation–it worked with the way I’m making movies now, and the types of movies I’m interested in now.”
Finding Split’s Many Creepy Charms
The result is a pulpy, comfortably wicked thriller that bares little resemblance to the relatively austere mysteries that turned Shyamalan into a top director in the early ’00s. The film opens with the parking-lot abduction of three teenaged girls (including The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), who wake up in an underground lair, where they’re tended to by McAvoy’s personality-shuffling villain, Kevin. His 23 alter egos include Hedwig, a coy, Kanye-loving 9-year-old; Patricia, a soothing caregiver with a lulling voice and high heels; and Barry, a mellow fashion designer who spends a good part of the movie conferring with a sympathetic psychiatrist (played by Tony winner Betty Buckley).
As Kevin cycles through each of his mind’s inhabitants, and the girls inch closer to escape, there are ominous murmurings about the imminent arrival of “The Beast”–a brutal creature who seems to exist only in the kidnapper’s richly detailed imagination. The movie forces McAvoy to shift from personality to personality every few minutes, each time adjusting his rhythms and mannerisms, sometimes in barely perceptible ways; one of the creepy joys of Split is never knowing which version of him is going to walk through the door.
“I tried very hard for you not to see [the personalities] switch on-screen,” says Shyamalan. “I didn’t want you to be able to look behind the curtain and see the transitional moments.”
M. Night’s Metamorphosis
Shyamalan is in a bit of a metamorphic period himself, having spent much of the past decade struggling to maintain the whiz-kid rep he earned after The Sixth Sense. Ever since 2006’s Lady in the Water, the writer-director–who was once heralded on the cover of Newsweek as “the next Spielberg,” and the subject of his own American Express ad–had experienced a series of critically piled-upon misfires, which included both original efforts (The Happening) and work-for-hire gigs (The Last Airbender). He was hardly the first auteur to be seduced by CGI extravagances and a cozy studio paycheck, but for those of us who’d admired Shyamalan’s commitment to ornate, original, never-boring big-screen campfire stories, it was a bit unnerving to see him essentially retreat behind a green screen.
Then came 2015’s The Visit, a low-budget found-footage shocker, financed by Shyamalan himself, about a pair of teens who experience an unsettling few days at their grandparents’ house, where things get progressively grosser and graver with each passing night. The movie was a strange hoot, full of diaper-spackling body fluids and cuckoo elders, and it became an unlikely hit, at a time when Shyamalan needed one. The film also led him to a collaboration with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, which specializes in low-budget, high-yield genre films like The Gallows and the Paranormal Activity series.
Shyamalan teamed up with the company again for Split, working with a reported $5 million budget–many millions less than big, Disney-backed productions like Signs or The Village. But Shyamalan seems genuinely liberated by such restraints, and both Split and The Visit have a brazen cravenness–the storytelling, like the villains, are lean and mean–far removed from his early work, which often used horror to explore bigger issues like faith, fate, and parenting. For the first time in many years, it looks like he’s actually having fun. (Split even has a few hints of De Palma-esque perviness–nothing that would push the movie past a PG-13, but a rarity for the filmmaker, whose movies tend to be sex-free affairs. “I’ve always had that instinct,” he says with a laugh. “It’s just that I feel so guilty, being an Indian: ‘My parents are gonna see it, my aunt and uncle are gonna see it–uhh, I feel so guilty!’ But I’m feeling less puritanical as I get older. I’ve loosened up a little bit.”)
Putting a Twist on the Twist
One thing that hasn’t changed with the lower budgets is Shyamalan’s tradition of closing with a big reveal. Split goes out with a whopper of a shocker, one that, at a recent screening, elicited hoots of approval from some of his long-time fans (suffice to say, you’ll want to stay ’til the end, and then stay ’til the end-end). It’s a moment that will almost certainly remind you of the films from M. Night’s now-shocking late ’90s and early ’00s run, when studios gave him eight-figure budgets and A-list stars so that he could explore whatever original notion he might have. And it may prompt a depressing question: At a time when so many theaters are clogged with fourth-tier sequels and recycled retro acts, will non-franchise films ever get those kinds of resources (and attention) again?
“I feel it turning man–I feel it turning right now,” he says. “I can see the signs. There are reasons to go to the movie theater, and one of them is CGI porn, to be sure. But another reason is really hyper-original storytelling, and I think that the urgency to come out of the house and go see a movie together can be elicited, if a movie is very original. I mean, look at La La Land. The industry is very cyclical, and a few years from now we might see six or seven movies [as original] as that.” That’s a twist we can’t wait to see coming.