Let me start by saying that prior to going into this film, I was very critical of it due to M Night Shaymalan's surprising decline from being one of the great up and coming filmmakers of the 21st Century, someone who was tipped as being the next Spielberg due to early box office and critical smash hits such as The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. While the first two films were really good and well done, Signs began to show M Night Shaymalan's decreasing stature as a strong filmmaker. His later films such as The Village, Lady In The Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth ranged from being boring to laughably bad and frustrating. How does one filmmaker begin his career at the top and find himself at the bottom with such a downward trend that kept getting progressively worse? Going into Split, I held out hope that Shaymalan's latest outing would be the beginning of a career resurgence as audiences had generally positive things to say about this film and The Visit. Having seen Split now, I can say that although Split is not the disaster M Night's previous films mentioned turned out to be, it's still far from being among his greatest work such as The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
To get the obvious out of the way, Split is easily Shaymalan's best work since Signs (One hasn't viewed The Visit yet), however that's not saying much when you look at what came in between. Shaymalan is a rather odd filmmaker, that tries to film suspense much in the same style as Hitchcock but ends up confusing and frustrating his audience rather than genuinely exciting them nowadays. When one goes into an M Night Shaymalan film, they not only look at the type of story he presents but immediately are guessing the big plot twist that later is revealed at the end. In the case of Split, Shaymalan reverts back to his earlier roots of trying to engage his audience with solid buildup of suspense with unexpected twists and turns. While M Night's directing is more restrained here due to him having a much lower budget and being grounded in reality, he also still doesn't reach the heights of suspense he created with The Sixth Sense. The first half of Split is well-executed and constructed with genuine intensity and convincing perfomances from the three young women held captive, but the film loses it's momentum in the second half, even with it's surprisingly slick plot twist that ties into one of M Night's previous films such as 2000's Unbreakable. Despite the film losing it's steam in the second half, it works because of one major factor which is James McAvoys charismatic performance in paying multiple characters that easily steal the show. McAvoy is the main attraction of the film and turns in a fantastic performance here as he carries the film solely on his shoulders. While the film isn't terrible, he makes it ultimately worth watching and giving it the elevated tension and suspense it needs. McAvoy is clearly running the show here and M Night keeps the camera pointed at him, garnering the best out of this extremely talented actor. As for the films look and style, the movie tries so hard to want to be a genuinely great thriller but is held back by Shaymalan's artistic directing style. What can best be said about Split in regards to Shaymalan's involvement, is that it's a step in the right direction in regards to returning him to form but he has a long way to go if he wants to ever churn out something as great as The Sixth Sense both in terms of critical acclaim and being a pop culture phenomenon. Despite Split's faults as a film, it shows that he is still capable of telling a creepy and suspenseful storyline but needs others to keep him restrained and focused on the ball. Split's main issue is that its all over the place not just with McAvoy's acting as he plays multiple characters but the film as a whole. More focused and straight forward narrative is needed in M Night's future endeavers as a director desperately trying to bring back his A game.
Overall Split is not a bad film but it's a movie that struggles with trying to be interesting but is saved mostly through the terrific acting of James McAvoy. McAvoy is the main reason that anyone should check out this film if they are a fan of this actor, but if one is looking for a deeply compelling and suspenseful thriller, then they should probably look elsewhere. Split is not the disaster that M Nights middle portion of his career turned out to be, but its also not one of the main highlights. In regards to turning his career around and putting him back on the map, Split is a good start but much more effort is required as well as more coherence in regards to storytelling. If I had to choose whether audiences should see or skip Split, I lean more towards the side that recommends seeing it but only because of McAvoys incredible performance that's one of the best performances of the year thus far next to Hugh Jackman's turn in Logan. As for Shaymalan, nice try but you have a lot more work to do. Keep it coming though.
7 out of 10