Split ★★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #91. What a shame that the majority of good reviews for this movie are sorta jokey and light-hearted in tone -- "Ha ha, James McAvoy is so crazy in this movie! Ha ha, what an insane film! Ha ha, this is such a crazy movie!" -- which is what led me to not seeing it for so long; because once I did, on a random whim on a boring weekend when I was in the mood for popcorn fluff, it was only then that I realized that this movie is actually terrifying as all hell, which raised my opinion of both the film and of director M. Night Shyamalan's recent comeback streak considerably.

For those who still don't know, the setup is simplicity itself: McAvoy plays a man who went through severe sexual and physical abuse as a child, and as a result has developed multiple personality disorder to cope with it, including one personality who is a sexual predator himself; in our movie we follow the fates of the latest round of young women he's kidnapped, as his various personalities clash and argue over what to do with them, even as one of the women (a victim of abuse herself) plots extra-smartly to escape.

And yes, some of McAvoy's characterizations are deliberately over the top ("Ha ha! HE'S SO CRAZY IN THIS MOVIE!"); but the clean-freak serial killer who dominates the rest of them is portrayed with deadly earnest seriousness, as is the female "black widow" personality who acts as an enabler for main baddie "Dennis"'s deadly activities. In fact, I specifically looked it up at IMDB, and realized that this is the very first movie with McAvoy that I've ever seen; and while in the past I've been quick to shrug off the praise he's received for a recent series of edgy, career-expanding roles (most specifically in 2013's Filth, in which he played a drug-addicted dirty cop), I have to admit that I'm now seeing him in a brand-new light, and will be giving him a much bigger benefit of a doubt from now on with future films.

And this goes even double for Shyamalan, who to be clear I was a huge fan of during his early run of successes like The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village (which I liked a lot more than apparently the rest of the planet did), but who like everyone else I just completely gave up on by the time such dreck as Lady in the Water and The Happening. Like McAvoy and Filth, I had heard all the surprise accolades for Shyamalan's last movie, 2015's lean and tight "crazy grandma" grindhouse thriller The Visit, and had dismissed it as fanboys suffering from Aint It Cool News Syndrome*; but I have to admit, I'm now a convert, the ultra-rare example of an egotistical artist who spent several years believing his own PR team's hype, got bit in the ass for it, and managed to actually shrug it off and reconnect with the simple core values that made his work so great in the first place.

That's a welcome thing to see, one I thought would never happen with a filmmaker who at one point had his head up his own ass so incredibly far (but for more, see 2004's The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, such a cartoonishly unearned dick-stroke of a hagiography** that I kept expecting Mickey Mouse to make an appearance at any minute); so for someone like that to go back to small-budget drive-in-type slashers (Lady in the Water cost $70 million, while Split cost $9 million) is worth our respect, especially after he does such an amazing job with them. I'm completely on board for his Unbreakable sequel, Glass, coming next year; but in the meanwhile, let me be one of the many to recommend Split if you still haven't seen it. Yes, yes, it may be CRAZY! at points, but this doesn't stop it from also being one of the most effectively scary psychological horror films I've seen in years, doubly impressive from it being just essentially McAvoy in a locked room with a rack full of clothing. What a great age for low-budget horror we live in!

* Aint It Cool News Syndrome: The tendency of genre fanboys to heap excessive praise on genre films simply for the act of being genre films, no matter how shitty or unwatchable they actually are. Also known as "God's Greatest Gift To 21st-Century Publicists."

** Worth nothing about The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan: Shyamalan was the secret producer of it himself, and forced everyone involved to sign an NDA that would fine them $5 million for revealing this in public. (The truth was eventually ferreted out by the Associated Press, angry after being bamboozled into doing an earlier puff piece that took the documentary at face value.) The fact that the finished "documentary" is so pretentiously self-important is bad enough; but once it came out that Shyamalan had produced it himself, and went to such draconian lengths to keep that fact a secret, it marked the beginning of his quick downfall as an A-list director, especially when followed up by the equally pretentious and self-serving Lady in the Water, in which Shyamalan himself portrays a writer whose work ends up saving the universe. For more, see this great takedown of the documentary by the IFC Channel.

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