M. Night Shyamalan Is Back with the Box-Office Hit “Split”


FEBRUARY 21, 2017

It’s early in 2017, but we’ve already got a box-office story, and that story is “Split.’

January releases are usually dismissed to the trash heap as its films are those who are thought of as not being able to cut it in a more competitive time frame, so there was not much hope for “Split.”

How wrong they were.

In the past 4 1/2 weeks, “Split” has grossed almost $125 million in the U.S. alone.  If you’re surprised at that, you’re not by yourself.  When I saw that a new M. Night Shyamalan movie was going to open in January, I wasn’t terribly excited.  After his Oscar-nominated work in “The Sixth Sense.” in 1999, Shyamalan did good work in “Unbreakable” (2000), but after that, it was “Signs” and “The Village” and it was all downhill from there.

But with “Split,” the Shyamalan who dazzled audiences with “The Sixth Sense” is back in fine form, and although “Split” is not “The Sixth Sense,” it is certainly much better than what moviegoers are used to during the dog days of January.

“Split” begins familiarly enough with three high-school teens — two popular girls Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) as well as social outcast Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy from last year’s “The Witch”) are abducted in a mall parking lot and held captive in a windowless basement room.  In a refreshing change, these women are not scared little girls — they are smart and determined not to play victim.

Ears to the door, they try to piece together just who kidnapped them and why.  There’s Dennis, the neatnik driver of the car, who regularly chats with Patricia, all dressed up in pearls, about their next steps.  Then there’s Hedwig, who has the mind of a 9 year-old, as well as Barry, a gay would-be fashion designer.

All of these personalities (and 20 more) inhabit the body of Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) who switches from one to another in the blink of an eye.  It’s a master class in acting from McAvoy, who, with minimal costume changes and voice intonations, make these personalities individual and distinct.  Persona by persona, they take their turns interacting with their captives, who in turn do their best to try to get released.  No dice, girls.

Shyamalan’s script is one of his smartest, although I have no idea whether the science of dissociative identity disorder, the syndrome from which Kevin suffers, is correctly depicted, although his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (an excellent Betty Buckley) makes a pretty convincing case for it.

What I’ve been asked most about “Split,” however, is whether or not there’s a twist in it.  A twist?  This is M. Night Shyamalan, people!  Of course there’s a twist!  And as twists go, it’s a pretty good one, although you have to be familiar with Shyamalan’s previous films to get the full impact.

Still, “Split” works because it’s fun.  And it’s been a long time that you could say that about an M. Night Shyamalan movie.